What You Need To Do To Make Your Productivity System Stick


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27 May 2021 | Podcast 184

This week, I’m answering a question about how to get started with and, more importantly, maintain a productivity system.

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Episode 184

Hello and welcome to episode 184 of the Working With Podcast. A podcast to answer all your questions about productivity, time management, self-development and goal planning. My name is Carl Pullein and I am your host for this show.

A common type of question I get asked is one around building and maintaining a productivity and time management system. It’s not so much about how to do it—after all, there are thousands of books and videos on this subject—it’s more about taking what you have learned by reading those books and watching those videos and turning that knowledge into a functioning system that works for you.

Now, before we get to the question, I would like to point out that June—which starts tomorrow (or Tuesday depending on when you listening to this podcast) is a 30-day month. Another golden opportunity for you to establish a habit. So, I thought I would suggest something.

In the book, Think And Grow Rich, Napoleon Hill tells us to take an idea (or a goal) that we want to accomplish, and begin and end every day imagining you have completed it successfully for thirty days.

Now the trick to doing this is to write down your idea or goal onto a piece of paper, or in your digital notes app, and read it out loud at the start and end of your day. As you read out your goal, imagine you have successfully accomplished it and really feel the emotions you experience by completing it.

The purpose of doing this is to engage your subconscious mind. That is the part of your mind that uses your knowledge and experience to come up with solutions to problems and gives you steps to take to accomplish goals and solve problems.

Remove all negative thoughts, only focus on the positives—the feelings you have when you accomplish your goal or successfully develop your idea. If a negative thought comes up, such as; I can’t do that, or that’s impossible, remove it. Replace it with a positive thought.

At the end of June, you will have programmed your brain to seek ways of making whatever your dream, goal or idea happen. Try it. What have you to lose?

Now, back to the show and that means it’s time for me now to hand you over to the mystery podcast voice for this week’s question.

This week’s question comes from Alan. Alan asks: Hi Carl, for years I have been reading books and articles about productivity and how to become better at managing my time. I’ve taken your courses, and I’ve even been on a Getting Things Done Fundamentals course. Yet, despite all these courses, books and articles, I just cannot make a system work for me. I can do it for a few weeks, but I soon find myself falling back on bad habits. Do you know how to make one of these systems stick?

Hi Alan. Thank you for the question.

Firstly, I should tell you that you are not alone with this problem. I come across this a lot in my coaching programme and I get many comments on my YouTube videos about it.

With anything like creating and using a system, you need to start small. Radically changing the way you do something will inevitably result in falling back into old ways. It’s just the way the human mind works. We love routine and we evolved habit building to help us achieve that.

You see, there are so many distractions going on in our world—they’ve always been there. It started out on the savannah thousands of years ago when we needed to stay alert to the dangers that were all around us. If we did not have a way of automatically putting one foot in front of another or breathing in and out without thinking, for instance, our brain would soon be overloaded with stuff. That’s why we developed habits.

Habits are formed in our subconscious mind and that’s the part of the mind that does not know the difference between doing something that is good for us and doing something bad. It’s amoral and completely objective. What you feed it will be taken in and returned to you in whatever form it is acquired. That could be a habit or it could be, as I mentioned a few moments ago, a solution to a problem you are experiencing.

Understanding this helps us to take steps to develop the right habits and strategies, but it also means we have to do things in small steps and allow enough time for them to grow.

So, becoming more productive, and as a consequence better at managing our activities in the time we have each day, means we need to build the right habits in the right sequence.

So, first up, build a morning routine. Now, this does not have to be elaborate or take too long. If you give yourself anywhere between twenty and thirty minutes to start with, for a series of positive, high impact activities that you consistently begin your day with you will be on the right track.

Let’s look at an example. Let’s say you always begin your day by visiting the bathroom and then making a cup of coffee, those are the first activities to add to your morning routine. Start with something you already automatically do.

Now, the next steps need to be something new. For instance, you could spend two to three minutes doing some stretches. Begin with your neck, then shoulders, and move on down your body. Slowly stretch out your limbs one by one.

Once you have done your stretches, take your coffee to a quiet table, preferably near a window, and spend ten minutes writing in a journal. Your journal could be digital or paper, it doesn’t matter, just write out your plan for the day and a few thoughts you may have in your mind in that moment. Be strict about the time. Only do this for ten minutes.

Finish with looking at your tasks and your appointments for the day and then start your day.

In total, that routine should not take you longer than twenty minutes.

Now, the key to making this work is you commit to doing that for twenty minutes every morning for at least 30 days. Do not add anything nor take anything away. Just start your mornings every day like this for thirty days.

To ensure this happens, do it on weekends as well as weekdays and you must make sure you have time for it every morning. So this means if you have to wake up early for a Zoom call, you wake up with sufficient time so you can do your twenty minutes before the call.

Now, if you fail, and skip a morning, you must go back and start again. You want to string together a minimum of thirty days doing the same thing every day. You cannot modify it or change it in any way. After thirty days, you can change it slightly, but this first step must be consistent.

Now, moving to your productivity system and embedding this. If you have taken the COD course, you will know the three basic components of all great productivity systems. Collect everything, spend a little time organising what you collected and dedicate the largest part of your day doing the work you set yourself.

The key habit you need to develop is collecting. If you are not collecting everything meaningful that comes your way, it won’t matter how elaborate or sophisticated the rest of your system is, you won’t trust it so you won’t use it. Develop the habit of collecting first.

To do that, take a look at how you collect your tasks right now. Do you do it consistently? If not, why not? You need that answer because you will need to change the way you collect so you are consistent.

This often means you need to review how you collect on your phone. This is the one tool you are likely to have with you everywhere you go so this will be your primary collection tool. Make sure that you have whatever task manager you use set up in such a way that collecting something is quick and easy and there are no barriers.

Since a lot of us are now working from home, you may find you need to do this with your computer too. I noticed over the last year or so, my primary collection tool has become my computer so I have a keyboard shortcut set up to add tasks quickly from my computer.

Again, give yourself thirty days to embed this habit. If you feel uncomfortable pulling your phone out when you are with people to add a task, get over that discomfort. Practice until it becomes automatic.

Now for the end of the day. This is another part to turn into a habit and I have discovered is also the most difficult to build. We are usually tired at the end of the day and when we are tired, we are less mindful about what we are doing and more prone to distractions. Again, developing a habit will help you. Just like brushing your teeth and washing your face before getting into bed, which you habitually do, you want to be spending around ten minutes reviewing your task list and calendar for tomorrow. Ideally, you will flag your most important tasks for the day while you do this.

Now, as you brush your teeth and wash your face, you can connect your ten minutes reviewing your task list and calendar to these activities to create a “habit stack” as James Clear would call it.

And as with your morning routines, do this every day for at least thirty days without ‘breaking the chain’. It is possible to develop this habit at the same time as you develop your morning routine, but if you find you struggle, then just focus on getting your start of the day right first.

For the rest of your work, you must avoid over-complicating things. Complexity is the death knell of any productivity system. It might look cool and pleasing to see a load of beautifully organised project folders with sub-folders breaking down each step of the project. But these kinds of structures are a nightmare to maintain, take far too long to organise and become holes where tasks go to die never to see the light of day again.

The reality is you only need to know what you must do today. You do not need to know anything else. Tomorrow is not here yet, and next week is too far away and there’s so much that will change that if you are trying to plan out beyond a week, you’ll be wasting your time because everything will change before you get to next week.

Here are a few observations that will help to simplify your system:

Stop sending emails to your task manager. Doing that creates duplication. People like Earl Nightingale (if you’ve never heard of him look him up), Winston Churchill, and Albert Einstein, never added “reply to X’s letter” into a task list. They allocated time each day to reply to their mail. Learn from these incredibly productive people.

Know what your “must-dos” are each day and spend the majority of your time focused on completing those. Relegate your “should dos” and “would like to dos” to the end of the day. Most of these you will find sort themselves out anyway.

Be clear about what it is you want to accomplish each day. If you are not starting the day with a clear plan you will fail to get anything meaningful done.

Keep your task manager as clean and tight as possible. Be very strict about what goes on there. When you fill your task manager with trivial things, it soon becomes bloated and makes doing your planning sessions a lot longer than it needs to be.

What you want to be thinking is in terms of sessions of work. This is where you have time for doing your errands, chores, communications and project work. You may need to keep this flexible, and that’s okay—all you do is schedule this time when you do your daily planning session.

Look, massively successful people from the likes of JD Rockefeller and Henry Ford right up to Elon Musk and Sir Richard Branson, focus their attention on the important things and never allow themselves to get lost in reorganising their lists or wasting time searching for the best productivity systems. We know what the best productivity system is. Ivy Lee demonstrated this to Charles Schwab over a hundred years ago.

Select your six most important tasks for the day, the day before and when you start your day, begin from the top and focus all your attention on completing the first task. When you complete it, move on to the next one and so on. This system still works today and it allows sufficient flexibility to deal with emergencies and client requests promptly and effectively so you can quickly get back to completing your list.

If you don’t manage to clear your list, roll over the tasks you did not complete to your list of six the next day.

This is essentially what the Time Sector System is built on. Focusing your attention on the most important tasks for the day and if you cannot complete them, roll them forward to another day in the week. All that really matters is your most important work for the day and making sure you do that.

Every successful person you meet will use a form of this system today. Tony Robbins and Sir Richard Branson use it, as did Jim Rohn, Earl Nightingale and Andrew Carnegie in their day. If it’s good enough for these people, then it’s good enough for you.

Hopefully, that helps, Alan. Thank you for your wonderful question. You probably can tell I’m quite passionate about this subject.

Thank you for listening and it just remains for me now to wish you all a very very productive week.

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