Using A Productivity System To Make Your Life A Little Easier

This is a guest post by Darren Tong. More of Daren’s writing can be found on Brain Cutlery which is a productivity blog that follows the journey of one man as he tries to put productivity principles and systems into practice to lead a more productive life. Daren is the father of two from the United Kingdom, and learns as much from his failures as his successes.

GTD ImageAt some point late last year I decided I’d had enough of plowing through the chaos of my work and personal life, relying on instinct and intuition to get the right things done at the right time. Don’t get me wrong; my approach worked. Sort of. What needed to be done generally did get done, to the standard required. But looking back at the ‘old’ me, two things stand out:

  • I was massively stressed out
  • I dropped the occasional clanger, which then required a lot of time and effort to fix

I decided to see if there was anything I could do to improve the way I organised my time and tasks to help me become more productive. So I found a productivity system.

What is a productivity system?

Simply put, a productivity system (by my definition) is a framework or structure that you follow to maximize your productivity. It could include:

  • A pre-defined set of routines
  • templates for writing things down and acting on them
  • A specific set of terminology for referring to things
  • A set of custom tools - electronic or paper based

I’m sure you could fill many bookstores with all the books - paper or electronic - on the topic of productivity and time management; part of your productivity journey will be to explore what’s available and find something that works for you. I found Getting Things Done (GTD).

Getting Things Done (GTD)

Let me lay a few things out on the table before I get started on GTD:

  • It has a reputation for being really complicated (it doesn’t have to be)
  • A guy called David Allen wrote this HUGE book about GTD, and though it’s great it does put a lot of people off (it took me two attempts to get it)
  • Lots of people hate it

Now I’ve got that out of the way, I can talk briefly about the basics of GTD and why it works for me:

It’s all about capture

The two concepts I believe are most fundamental to GTD are capture and Next Actions.

Capture is the habit of writing everything down that you need to do as soon as possible after it occurs to you. It’s important that you don’t try and process (or do) the task at that point - just write it down.

This forms the basis for David Allen’s “mind like water” philosophy - he says that getting stuff out of your brain and into a “trusted system” allows you to stop worrying about it, which in turn frees up brain power to actually focus on doing stuff.

To put it another way: Think of your brain as having a fixed amount of memory, like the RAM in your computer. Worrying about stuff takes up RAM, slowing you down and making you less effective. Writing stuff down, or capturing, frees up RAM so you can work through important stuff more quickly.

Focus on what to do next

The second key principle of GTD is that of “Next Actions”. In a nutshell, the aim is to boil every project, big or small, down to a set of atomic, actionable tasks. This enables you to identify the next thing you need to do.

For example, you might write down “make a cup of tea”. However, what you really want to do is:

  • Put the kettle on
  • Find a clean cup
  • Get a teabag
  • Pour the boiled water into the cup
  • Get some milk
  • Add the milk to the tea

This is a bit of a silly example, but hopefully you’ll see that a seemingly small task like “make the tea” could actually be six separate tasks. Identifying the next action (put the kettle on) - means you can focus on moving the project forward, rather than worrying about everything needed to achieve the end goal (a nice cup of tea).

The bottom line

If you can develop the habit of writing stuff down in a timely way and then breaking it down into small, actionable tasks, you’re well on your way to implementing a GTD-like productivity system. I mentioned before that there’s Getting Things Done:The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, and I would suggest that if you’ve dipped your toe in the water and seen some improvement as a result, it would be worth giving the book a go. It will give you suggestions on:

  • Prioritizing tasks based on your current context (where you are and the tools you have available)
  • Developing habits for maintaining your task list (“Reviews”)
  • A process for evaluating stuff that comes in from other sources
  • The importance of not putting too many tasks into your calendar

It also talks about the files and systems you could use (but I would respectfully suggest you could skip over that).

A task management tool

The last piece of the puzzle once I’d settled into the GTD system was to find a tool that worked for me. GTD works fine on paper, but my inner geek isn’t happy unless I have an app to cover every aspect of my life. There are many apps out there: Omnifocus - is well loved by Mac Users (it’s not available for Windows), but I selected Nozbe for its flexibility and simplicity.

A good productivity tool will enhance, rather than constrain your day to day routines and you’ll need to find one that suits you. For example, I really liked Facile Things  but found it just a little too prescriptive for my taste. 

I’ve been “doing GTD” for nearly six months and although my system isn’t perfect, not only has it improved my productivity, but it has also liberated me psychologically in terms of how much more in control I feel. 

My journey is just beginning, and I’m discovering new tools and techniques to incorporate or discard along the way. If you’re interested in following my journey, you can find me at Brain Cutlery.

What tools and techniques do you use to make your life more productive? Comment below. 

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  • Melanie Wilson

    Darren, thanks for sharing this. I’ll check out Brain Cutlery (great title by the way). I’m doing the same thing on my blog (trying out different approaches every week), but haven’t yet given GTD another go. I will though as I know so many people love it.

  • braincutlery

    Thanks Melanie! I’ve been following your experiment and I’m really enjoying it. I wonder if you’ll get the most out of GTD in just a week, but I look forward to finding out!

    Thanks for your comment!

  • Leon Edward

    Hi, I stumbled upon your blog, read post, signed up email.
    you put into words what I and others want to do of course based on the number of self development ‘teachings’ .
    But the simple steps and the explanation of how simple notes clear ‘space’ or even ‘brain processing power’ to accomplish tasks or goals is a perfect reminder for myself at least
    Thanks again, look forward to more