The modern world is generally chaotic and fast-paced, whether you signed up for that or not. There's a constant deluge of information to process, projects to juggle, and tasks to keep track of. Unless you happen to be remarkably organized or posses a better than average memory, chances are you use some sort of system or method to handle everything.
That can be as simple as a single list of todos or as complex as a web of interconnected apps and workflows. The point is, pretty much everyone has a system in place to help them manage some or all aspects of their lives.
In a way, productivity systems are a sort of mental outsourcing, or cognitive augmenting we use to help us stay organized and focused. That's why it's so important to use the right system for you. Imagine, for example, being a carpenter and trying to use tools better suited for a plumber. Now imagine you do that every single day of your life.
This guide aims to present some of the most popular productivity systems around, and more importantly, help you figure out if it's a system that you should consider trying for yourself.
In the productivity system diagram below, we've placed the systems we'll cover in this guide based on what they mainly focus on and how they approach that. With these two dimensions in mind, we'll be better equipped to pick and choose a system or systems that make sense for us.
Productivity systems, like any other tool, exist to help us achieve something. And broadly speaking, most systems serve roughly the same purpose, the main difference being their focus and level of thoroughness.
However, not all systems are created equal. Some have a steeper learning curve and require more dedication in order to get the desired benefit of using them. The truth is you might not need all the bells and whistles a particular system provides.
There is definitely a curve of diminishing returns when it comes to productivity systems, and there's no point in using a heavy-duty excavator when a simple garden shovel could to the trick. In fact, you might end up getting in your own way if you try to do too much. At some point, adding more to a system, creates overhead that outweighs the benefits.
The key is to match your particular needs to the system so you get the benefit that the system was designed to provide. Otherwise you might end up doing a lot of stuff without actually resolving the main problem you need help with.
So the first thing you want to think about is what is your biggest issue. What is the main thing that's holding you back from being productive? Are you having trouble staying on track or are things slipping through the cracks simply because there's too much information?
Let's go back to the diagram with the productivity systems for a second. Note the four quadrants, they roughly correspond to four big needs most people look to productivity systems to solve. We can use that to help us narrow down the right system or systems for you.
Here we're using two dimensions to plot and group productivity systems. We consider whether it's a task or a process oriented system, and how thorough it is in its approach.
Task vs process oriented systems
The top half of the diagram is reserved for systems that have a task oriented approach. Their main focus is on the doing. If you have trouble with procrastination, getting started, managing your time, or figuring out what you should do next - this is likely where you should look.
The bottom half is for systems with a stronger focus on the process. These are great if what you need is a system to provide clarity and continual improvement. The strength of these systems is that they have workflows that emphasize the actual process more than the task completion. That's not to say they throw it out the window, but simply that the greatest benefit comes from following the process rather than the completion of any single task.
If you need help bringing information together, understanding where you workflow could be improved, how all your work fits together, then this half is where you'll want to look.
Also note that there are many other systems that are not included on the diagram. However, you can use the same approach we're using right now when considering a new system. Imagine that you're trying to place it on the diagram based on its focus and approach. If you can do that, then you should have a pretty good idea if it's a system you should experiment with or if it's simply going to have you going down a rabbit hole that won't address your problems.
Simple vs thorough approaches
The horizontal axis of the diagram is pretty straightforward. On the left side we have systems that are relatively simple to understand and use. These are great to start with if you're not sure how robust of a system you'll need. It's better to start with the simplest thing first and then only if you need more structure would you try the ones on the right side of the diagram.
This goes back to what we mentioned at the beginning about using the right tool for the right job. When using productivity systems, there's no real benefit to picking a more complex system over a simple one if that's all you need - unless you're chasing that sweet productivity system clout.
On the right hand side of the diagram we have those that generally provide a more comprehensive system that tries to encompass a person's workflow. This also translates into a relatively more complex system to learn and maintain.
Note that complexity in this sense is not a value judgement, large projects with multiple people might require a more robust system to keep everything running smoothly.
Once you've narrowed down one or two systems that seem to fit the bill, you'll want to read up on them and try them out for at least two weeks. Luckily, we have guides for how to set up each of these systems in the next section.
When you're actually trying out a system, you're looking for a couple of things.
It doesn't have to completely solve the problem, just improve it to the point where the effort of using the system is worth the benefit you get. You can always tweak a productivity system to better suit your needs.
This comes down to your particular situation and the level of complexity of the system. If it's taking forever to use a system, even if it's useful, chances are you're not going to stick to using it.
If a system requires you to handle task or projects in a way that clashes with the rest of your personal or professional life, again, that will make it very difficult to maintain in the long run. The system should dovetail into the rest of your life if it's going to have a chance of sticking.
Here's a list of the productivity systems we've included in this guide and that we have tutorials for. Each tutorial shows you how to set the system up and start using it.
The Pomodoro method
This method breaks down work into 25 minute chunks called 'Pomodoros' punctuated with 5 minute breaks. The idea is to work with high focus and energy for short bursts, then taking breaks to recharge, improve mental agility and avoid burnout.
In this method you schedule specific blocks of time for specific activities. The goal of time blocking is to prioritize tasks and allocate time effectively, reducing the tendency to switch between tasks, minimize distractions, and increase productivity. It's also a great way to help structure and plan your day.
Kanban is a visual method that uses a board with columns and cards to help manage a workflow across distinct phases. The key principles of kanban are visualizing work, limiting work in progress, managing flow and implementing feedback loops.
The PARA method helps you categorize tasks into specific categories - Projects, Areas, Resources, and Archives. By categorizing tasks in this way, you can prioritize work more effectively and make sure you're focusing on the most important tasks. The PARA method also forms the backbone of the BASB system.
GTD (Getting things done)
The getting things done system is a multi-step process of capturing, processing, and engaging with information in a way that makes it easy for you quickly get things out of your head and into a system that funnels things where they need to go - letting you focus on what's important.
Bullet journaling is a system to quickly capture information, plan out tasks, and reflect on one's activities at several different timescales. At its core, it's a mix between todo lists and a calendar.
BASB (Building a second brain)
Building a second brain aims to outsource your memory and enhance your ability to make connections across time and space. This method goes beyond simply organizing information and lays out a process of continual review and refinement of the information that goes into it. The end goal being the ability to easily synthesize different pieces of information into new and novel ideas.
We hope by now it's clear why taking the time to really explore and experiment with different productivity methods is a worthwhile endeavor. Especially when you have a better idea of how to pick and choose as we've laid out in this guide.
Remember that it's far too easy to jump from one system to another hoping that it will be the one that makes the difference and solves all your problems. You have to give each system you choose a fair shot. That means giving it enough time and putting in enough effort to really see if it makes sense for you.
Resist the temptation of jumping on the bandwagon when a new system comes out for the sake of doing the new thing. The goal is to find the system that works for you and stick with it, master it, understand its strengths and weaknesses, then when you're comfortable with it, tweak it to your needs. We'll leave you with a quote that hopefully gets that point across.
I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times. - Bruce Lee.
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