I’ve never been one for systems. I’ve read “Getting Things Done”, or GTD, and rGTD, and ZTD, and all the other offshoots and variations of the sure-fire solution to increasing your productivity and “shipping”, as the kids say. But none of these systems ever stuck.
For me, the problem is that these systems spend so much time setting up rules and structures, and coming up with names for the different constructs, and it all feels very religious. Having grown up Catholic, that means when I violate one of the edicts of the doctrine, I feel guilty, and I’m tired of walking around feeling guilty.
Much like traditional religions, though, there are a core set of fundamental principles that are common between the productivity systems; the efficiency equivalents of the “golden rule” and the Ten Commandments that I learned in Sunday school that are common in just about every other theology, worded just differently enough so that each system can claim its originality and superiority over the others.
Some people like the rules. They like the structure that these productivity systems give them, and it works for them. And that’s just great. For others, the rules and the structure wind up being a road block from taking advantage of the nuggets hidden within the system. That was me. I wanted to write more, but couldn’t seem to find the time. I wanted to work out. I wanted to work on my iOS applications. I had all these things that I wanted to do, but ten times the number of reasons why I wasn’t doing them. I looked to GTD and other systems to help solve the problem and get me writing more, but all it did was frustrate me.
Instead of focusing on finding a system to commit to, I looked at my situation. What was keeping me from doing those things I wanted to be doing? That’s when I stopped focusing on what these systems were trying to trademark and realized that many of them were talking about the same basic concepts. I looked past the implementation details and nomenclature differences and tried to find those concepts without the noise and apply them to my life.
Below are the five biggest changes that I made in my life that resulted in the most dramatic changes to my productivity level. They have also had a huge impact on my stress level since I wasn’t walking around feeling like I was failing at any particular system and I was actually seeing positive changes in my daily output. There is nothing new or innovative about these ideas, and many of them are buried beneath the lingo and rigid rules of the productivity systems. They focus on setting yourself up for success by addressing some of the common barriers to production. Here they are, in plain English, without buzzwords.
1. Get Organized
No, I don’t mean 47 folders to file things in to, or carrying around a series of notebooks, although if that is what it takes for you to get organized, then do it. But find something you can use to introduce some order in to the chaos. Knowing where something is can be the key to using it. If you’re inspired to write but spend 45 minutes looking through a stack of random paper for a note you wrote an idea on, by the time you find the paper your inspiration might be gone. If you are trying to get handle on your budget but can’t seem to find all of your receipts to make sense out of where your money is going, you’re probably never going to stick to your budget. Whatever your goal is, figuring out a system to organize your life is a fundamental building block for everything else.
For me, that turned out to be going digital with everything, and then using tools like Evernote and DropBox to manage those files. I track to-do lists for projects in Evernote, as well. I also use tools like Mint to track my finances. With these systems in place, I can easily access all of my notes, I know where my money is going, and when tax season comes around, I have all my receipts ready to go.
Like most things, the more you put in to it, the more you get out of it, but even a little effort can produce benefits.
2. Automate Everything
Technology is a wonderful thing. It allows us to put so many things on autopilot. Ten years ago, I was writing at least 10 checks every month for my mortgage, utilities, magazine subscriptions, and whatever else I needed to pay for. Now, I rarely write a check. Instead, the gas company e-mails me a bill that automatically gets forwarded to a folder in Evernote. I review the bill electronically and tell my Mint when the due date is and how much it is for. When the bill is due, the gas company automatically deducts the amount I owe from an account, and Mint reconciles the two transactions. It takes 2 minutes. The same goes for using automatic payments with your bank. If you have something that is due the same time every month, why waste brain cells thinking about it? Automate it. If you are afraid of giving out your bank account information, choose a bank that offers bill pay and take advantage of it.
3. Schedule Everything
My wife and I use Google Calendar extensively. She has her personal calendar and her work calendar. I have my personal calendar and my meal planning calendar. They’re all visible every time we pull up the calendar on the computer or on our phones, and she knows what I’ve got planned and I know what she has planned so that when we’re trying to make plans together, we save a lot of time and hassle e-mailing, texting, or talking back and forth. Having things in the calendar also means you get reminders as often as you need them and in any format you want them in. If I need to go to the grocery store after work, it goes in the calendar. If I need to remember to bring something to work the next day, it goes in the calendar. I’ll have the reminder pop up the night before and the next morning. Put it in the calendar and forget about it until it’s relevant.
4. Get Ready The Night Before
Even though I am a morning person, those early hours my brain is still not at 100%. If I wake up late and rush around, my focus and recall is even worse, and I either forget something I was supposed to do or bring with me that day, or I run out of time to do whatever it is I needed to do and it doesn’t get done.
One of the biggest boosts to the likelihood that something I wanted to do the next day would be to get it ready the night before. Want to stop going out for lunch but always forget to pack a lunch? Do it the night before. Want to work out but always forget your gym clothes? Pack them the night before.
5. Watch Less Television
My nighttime routine used to be get home from work, make dinner, eat dinner, play with my son, put him to bed, then watch television until we went to bed, which was usually one to three hours worth. Now, we might watch one show and then I’ll head to the office to do some work or write before I head to bed.
Note that I didn’t say “don’t watch any television”. I still like my television, but I limit my dosage and venue where I can watch it. There is no television in our office or our bedroom. The office is for working and the bedroom is for sleeping and, well…not watching television.
Stop Trying To Find A System And Start Making Changes
If you want to write more, what is stopping you? Is it because you aren’t using GTD? Probably not. Is it because you watch too much television, spend too much time on Facebook or reading about productivity systems? Maybe. So change that. If you can’t get a handle on your office paperwork because everything is in a pile, focus on organizing. If you aren’t working out because you constantly rush out the door in the morning and forget your workout clothes, pack the night before.
You don’t need to subscribe to a system to make a change, just like you don’t need to subscribe to a particular religion to know that you should treat other people the way you would want to be treated. You just need to look at your own life, see what is preventing you from doing whatever it is you want to be doing, and focus on changing that.