We all want to get more done, be more efficient, end up a day with a sense of accomplishment – be it in our work or personal life, managing self or others. The cornerstone here is to be aware that you will never have a complete control over the process. Nor should you. Perhaps it is the main life lesson, which can be also translated on people management at work – learning to let go, trust and allow your own brain, complemented with some productivity system, do their part in the background.
What does it mean to be productive? My vision is that one should get rid of that nagging tension of being effective, and instead work out an efficient method that allows to get the important things done without wasting time and efforts on constant recalling and planning. According to David Allen, the author of a famous productivity system Getting Things Done (GTD), you don’t need to reinvent the wheel and treat every task as something new. His GTD method is based on the idea of moving tasks outside of your own head in a form of an organized system. But there is one caveat – you must trust this system. If you move information to the system, you have to be sure that it will always be there, available any moment you need it. Only then, you will feel the comfort of a clear mind – because you will be reminded about tasks when needed.
Productivity systems: how they work
You can choose a solution from a variety of methods and systems that are being developed and tweaked all the time. It is a good starting point but they are definitely more useful when you adjust them to fit your specific style and needs. Below, though, are the stages to get you started on the enlightened path to thinking and acting with productivity systems.
1. Capture ideas
With tasks, just as with catching Pokémon, you want to get them all. But you should set the bar really low at first. You just might not be that good at figuring out what you are capable of. Start with capturing and writing down all ideas, thoughts, and to-do’s. For a quick way of taking notes and organizing them later you can consider Todoist tool. So just to it. Later you will learn not only to write down ideas but make actionable tasks out of them. All in due time – you will become an expert, but on this very first stage simply use the system at every chance you get.
2. Clarify ideas – identify actions
Review all the items and identify which of them are actionable. If you know that the action will take you no longer than two minutes, then do it straightaway. Otherwise, put it on a list, but write in a way that while reading it you will know exactly what to do. Write to your future self. To make it easier, I recommend adding context to the item at once i.e. links, attachments, phone numbers etc.
3. Organize tasks into lists
Once your tasks are clarified and written down properly, you can proceed to classifying them into lists according to different parameters: timeframes, locations, other people involved or specific state of mind needed etc. When organizing tasks, think about the context in which you want to be reminded of them. For example in Todoist, it might be a label with a person’s name, a place like work or a specific building, HR, or client or all of them at once. They don’t have to (but still might) have time connected with them. Simply imagine that, at the time you meet a colleague, you get a list of tasks that are connected with this person. All are relevant, none is about something else.
The pleasure of not having to search for them is magnificent. You get all related tasks when you need them. Just learn to check the contexts.
Additionally, think of the time when you actually want to do the task (do not confuse with the deadline, for which you should in fact have a separate and very specific task of delivering results). Block some time if needed – arrange a meeting with yourself and put it in the calendar, so that you finish the task without others interfering.
4. Reflect and review your system frequently
Make it a part of your weekly routine to look through the tasks in your system, clean it up, remove what is not relevant anymore, prioritize, make sure that all you care about is properly described. Just dedicate time to tasks and projects that matter to you. You will definitely feel better that way and more in control of the situation.
5. Engage and do
Everything is set up, now it is the time to simply do it. You will get reminded of time-dependent tasks and you will learn to check contexts-dependent tasks when appropriate, so you will just start doing them one after another
Make it a habit to be productive
Setting a productivity system once is not enough to see the results. One should incorporate it into everyday routine; make it a habit and an integral part of life. Here are some hacks from my own experience:
- Capture everything and everywhere. Don’t do it occasionally. You have to put everything into your system, so that you could completely rely on it and forget about a backup in your head.
- Learn to formulate actionable items. Write to your future self – use verbs instead of nouns to explain to your future self what exactly should be done. Be exact. Don’t write cryptic questions or if no other option, add something like “Sit down and think about question X, and send an answer to Y”.
- Always remember about the context in which you will do the task. Try to guess it and put it in this specific bucket for the future use. Todoist can be helpful with its labels but don’t make too many in advance. You will get lost in them before you realize it and you will spend too much time building the system. Build them and adjust as you go. Start with a few important people that you meet or work with most often, and then with places like work, home or store. If you have more specific places in your work, add them later; the same with people involved. Those contexts need to be used, and not simply created.
- Find time to review your captured ideas and refine them into tasks. Gradually, you will optimize this time and omit some steps completely – instead of capturing ideas, you will capture actionable tasks with contexts. But do not discard this stage at the very beginning as it’s very important.
Managing others is managing yourself as well
So you’ve learned to manage yourself – you are the one responsible for planning, executing and evaluating results. But the question arises how to be a productive team manager – when one of the most significant stages of doing tasks is delegated to others?
In my opinion, many tasks that seem team-oriented and delegated (so not your problem, right?) have in fact a strong “self-management” part. For example, you’ve just delegated a task and generally trust that it is being done. But you should not just delegate and forget. Instead, put all your follow-up tasks in a dedicated project that is separate from other tasks. Better yet – create a new task, linking to the old one. The old task “X” is now the responsibility of your team member. The new task “follow up on X” is a completely new, 100% your own task. You might add a time reminder, but remember it is not a time to finish the task X, just to check it. But even without time reminders, simply check all the tasks in the “follow-up” project as part of a weekly review. This way you will always have a grasp of what is going on with the items you’ve delegated. Now you have a feeling of control even with the uncontrollable.
That is just one example, but I hope it gives you an understanding on how managing yourself is important in managing others and is never really a separate thing.
In a nutshell
To wrap it up, a good productivity system helps to meet many challenges, and at the same time minimize time spent on its management. A good system brings you peace of mind by freeing your brain from holding all your tasks and plans and fetching them just for the exact moment when you need them. The effort though is that you need to invest time in learning how to use it, but it pays off for sure, especially if project management is your sphere of interest..
Currently Business Analyst at SoftServe with strong background in Product Ownership and Scrum with a PhD in Computer Science related to Service Oriented Systems and Web Applications. For many years a lecturer at Wrocław University of Science of Technology and team leader on Research and Development projects. While juggling all the project related activities and switching to different roles, doing PhD research and lectures, he learned the power or time-management. He became a firm believer in productivity systems, habit forging, and mindfulness. Now he uses his experience to manage both Business Analyst role at SoftServe and many training and meetup opportunities, never forgetting about new technologies and ideas, which currently include serious games, gamification techniques, machine learning and graphs. And personal time? He has it scheduled neatly: family, dog, board games and sports – all have their time block and high priority.