The Working With… Podcast

How To Make Your Productivity System Work

April 18, 2022

This week’s question is on the subject of optimisation and process. Two parts of the productivity mix that rarely get talked about.


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Episode 226 | Script

Hello and welcome to episode 226 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.

There’s a lot of information on creating a system or method for better managing your time and being more productive, but how do you improve those systems and methods once you have them in place? 

More importantly, how do you repair broken systems when they fail? (And they always fail in the early days) Because there’s less information about these situations, a lot of people quit trying or wander off looking for another new system. 

That’s the wrong way of looking at it. As long as the system you adopt covers the three basics: collecting, organising and doing, then the system can be made to work for you. Your system is a little like when you buy a new mobile phone. 

When you first get the phone, there are a number of preinstalled apps. If you tried to live your life with these limited apps you wouldn’t get the most out your mobile phone. You need to customise the phone for the kind of lifestyle you have. It’s no good having the English Premier League app installed when your sporting love is rugby and cricket. So we add and remove apps according to taste and that’s the same with your productivity system. You will at some point need to customise it to maximise the effectiveness of your system. 

That’s what I’ll be talking about in this episode. 

And so, without further ado, let me hand you over to the Mystery Podcast Voice for this week’s question.

This week’s question comes from Andrew. Andrew asks, Hi Carl, I’ve tried a lot of time management programmes and methods over the years, but I can never find one that works for me. There’s always something missing and a lot of features I’m never likely to use. I am curious how you have made things work for you. 

Hi Andrew, thank you for your question.

The reality is no system, programme, or method will ever work perfectly straight out of the box. You see the difficulty is all these methods are developed for humans and humans are not machines. We all think differently, prioritise different things and work different jobs. 

And even in our own lives, our priorities will change. In our teenage years is all about getting an education. In our twenties, it’s about learning to handle the responsibilities of being an adult and intimate relationships. And as we get older, there’s likely parenthood, career and eventually retirement to manage. 

The reality is, a system you developed to manage your education is not going to be as effective when you want it to manage your career and family life. It will have to change and evolve as you change and evolve. 

Now the mistake I see most people making is thinking that as their priorities change they need to change their whole system and that’s not true. Rather than changing a whole system what really needs to happen is the existing system you use needs to be adjusted. 

So what does that mean?

Well, let’s look at the three parts to a good productivity and time management system. There’s a task manager, a calendar and a notes app. Now the only thing that’s changed here over the last ten to twenty years is we’ve gone from a paper-based system (diaries and notebooks) to a largely digital system. 

The biggest change there was the separation of our task list and notes. Twenty years ago, we wrote our to-dos in our notebooks (or on PostIts!). Now, for most people, they are two different apps. 

But, the basics still apply. To ensure we are working on the things that matter we need to be clear about what needs to be done. Whether those tasks are written out on paper or in a digital system doesn’t matter. 

The same applies for writing out our goals and plans. Whether you write these out on paper or digitally doesn’t change things. You still write them out (externalise them) and review them (hopefully).

This means if you are struggling with “systems” it is not likely to be the system itself, it’s more likely something is not working within the three areas (collecting, organising and doing) 

With collecting, the emphasis is on writing down all your commitments and ideas and not trusting your brain to remember them. That’s simple enough. But, the question here is: are you collecting all your commitments and ideas? Do you sometimes skip this part? 

Problems here are usually in three areas. 

The first is there’s no habit to collect, so we ‘forget’ to write things down or we believe we will remember—which often we don’t. Plus, if you don’t collect everything you don’t get a sense of how much you have to do, so you end up with a false picture of what commitments you have. 

The second is there’s a lack of trust in the tools you are using. If you don’t trust that your task manager or notes app will safely store what you put in there, you will continue to try and remember everything in your head. 

Trusting your tools is a big step for many people, and it becomes a lot harder for those who are always switching their tools. Whenever you start using a new tool (or app), there will always be an element of doubt that what you collected went where it was meant to go. It takes time to build that trust. 

And thirdly, the tools you are using make it very difficult to add new tasks or ideas. If there are too many ‘clicks’ or taps to get something new into your task manager or notes app, you will not consistently add stuff. 

It’s important when choosing tools, you test out how easy it will be to get stuff into the app. If there are too many clicks or taps, then stay well away from the app. 

What I’ve noticed here is a lot of people are attracted to the latest, shiniest tool, so they are looking at the aesthetics of an app or what popular YouTubers are telling them. Just remember, a lot of these YouTubers are paid to review these apps and they are not necessarily reviewing things objectively. 

Now when it comes to organising, I find a lot of people’s organisation system is either their downloads folder or their inbox. There’s no structure and so it’s almost impossible to find anything. 

These days you don’t need a complex hierarchical organisation system. The computers we use have fantastic search capabilities, but you do still need some form of basic organisational structure or you will become overwhelmed when you go searching for something you cannot remember the name of. 

How you organise your stuff really depends on you. No one person will be the same here. My notes, for instance, are structured around GAPRA—Goals, Areas of Focus, Projects, Resources and an archive. This gives me a place for all the things I collect. 

When I shared this organisational structure on YouTube, I got so many questions about where I think something some be stored. I couldn’t answer a lot of those questions because I didn’t have the kind of notes I was being asked about. In this area, we will all have different types of collected notes. This is where you have to trust yourself and think about how you would naturally look for something. 

My file folder structure, for instance, is divided into two parts Personal and Professional. That’s because I use a single computer for both my work and my personal life. I have a lot of clients who have a computer for work and a computer for their personal lives. In this situation, my structure wouldn’t work. 

For my professional work, I run my own company. This means I need folders for tax, company regulations, expenses, employees and admin. If you are an employee, things like HR, admin and taxation are likely things you don’t need. 

Doctors and lawyers are required to do continuous professional education which means they need a way to keep all of these educational materials somewhere. Project managers may be managing several projects all at once and so need a way to manage these materials. 

Hopefully, you get the point. No one person is going to have the same file and note organisational structure. It’s very important to spend some time developing your own so you can find what you need when you need it. 

When it comes to how you manage your task manager, here, all you need to see is what needs doing now. Something that needs doing in six months’ time is not relevant today. 

I find the problem with the way people manage their task managers is overthinking things. The only thing that’s important today are the things you need to do today. Tomorrow’s tasks are not relevant today.

This means, that the most crucial part of a day is when you ask yourself “what needs to be done today?” Now, ideally, you will do this the night before, not the morning of. You want to be very clear when you start the day what needs to be done. If you leave the daily planning to the morning of the day, you waste so much valuable focus time trying to decide what to do. 

When you do the daily planning the night before, you can step back and look at the big picture and anticipate what’s coming at you. You will also find you are more engaged with your family and friends because the next day is planned and you are not worrying about things you may have missed. 

I don’t buy into the excuse that there’s no time to do the daily planning the night before. It’s a ten to twenty minute daily commitment. If you cannot find ten to twenty minutes at the end of the day, then you have serious problems. Nobody is genuinely that busy. 

No, if you are not doing a ten to twenty-minute daily planning session, you are just being lazy. Pure and simple. 

How difficult is it to look at your calendar and your task list for tomorrow? Seriously? You don’t have time for that?

And if you don’t want to look at it because you don’t want to be thinking of work when you are not working, you need to question your career choice. If you hate your work that much, you cannot bear to look at your calendar and task list for a few minutes before you end the day, you’re in the wrong career. 

And finally, when it comes to doing, how are you managing your time? Are you maximising your “doing” time or are you spending too much time organising? 

Now here it’s about learning when you are at your most focused. Again, we will be different. Some people are more focused first thing in the morning, while others find their focus is better later in the day. 

Now, I understand that a lot of people don’t have a great deal of control over their calendars when at work, but you can still look at ways to make sure you are blocking time out for the more difficult work at a time you are likely to be most focused. Okay, you may have a meeting at 10:30am, but what are you doing at 9:00am? That’s still a good hour and fifteen minutes where you have a block of focused time. If you know before you start the day what the big task is for the day, you can get started on that first thing. 

So, Andrew, rather than looking at different methods, programmes and systems, look at the three foundations of collecting, organising and doing. How are you in each of these three areas? 

Whether you are using David Allens, Getting Things Done, the Franklin Planner or my Time Sector System, if you are not consistently collecting, don’t have a clean, workable organisation system and have no plan for doing your work each day, nothing will work. 

You will be constantly looking at different methods and tools and never finding what you are looking for because you are looking in the wrong place. Look at yourself first. Decide what you want to see each day and how you prefer to get things done. 

Then build on that. 

I hope that has helped, Andrew, and thank you for sending in your question. And, thank you to you too for listening.

It just remains for me now to wish you all a very very productive week.


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