The Working With… Podcast

How to Review Your Productivity System

January 27, 2020

How often do you do a complete review of your system? That’s the question I’m answering this week. 



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Episode 117

Hello and welcome to episode 117 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.

This week, I have a fantastic question about reviewing your productivity system and what you should review and why. Our environment and work are in constant change, perhaps not big changes, but little changes and over time these changes need to be reflected in our productivity systems. 

As part of reviewing any system, I should point out that if you have already taken the COD course (that’s Collect, Organise and Do) then redoing the course is a great way to review your overall system. It should help you to refocus on the basics and re-evaluate your objectives for any system.

If you haven’t already taken the course, you can do so for FREE. It’s around forty minutes long and will give the basics of setting up your very own COD productivity course. 

Okay, it’s now time for me to hand you over to the mystery podcast voice for this week’s question. 

This week’s question comes from Stuart. Stuart asks: Hi Carl, I’ve heard you mention that you regularly review your whole system. Could you tell me why you do that, how often and what do you review when you do it? 

Thank you, Stuart, for the question. You’re right, I do review my system. I do it once or twice a year. I feel it’s important to periodically review my system because things change. What worked for me two years ago likely does not work as efficiently today. And that's because not only do our work and work scope change so does who we are and how we work. 

The question though, is how often should you review your system? Well, here we need to be careful. Too frequently and you never allow any system to settle and become automatic. It can also be used as an excuse to try new apps when your current apps may not be the problem. 

So, for me, I review my system every six months or so. Six months feels like the ‘perfect’ time and it also means my reviews do not last too long. 

How do you go about doing a review? For me, it starts in my notes app. What I do is I review my previous review’s note. This is great because it will immediately highlight any areas I was looking at in my previous review and in a way it’s a pre-made template. If you don’t delete any part of this note it also becomes a fantastic record of how your system has evolved and grown as you have become better organised and more productive. 

It also means you can add comments about your thinking in the previous review and that helps with the current review. 

So what do we look at?

The first step is to review how you are collecting your stuff. Can you

collect fast and collect seamlessly? In my experience, if there are too many steps to collect you will resist. You may not resist all the time, but resisting just once is enough to miss something important and when you miss something, that creates distrust in your system. You need to trust your system. Without that trust, everything falls apart. 

So how do you collect? Is there any way you could make it faster? Can you collect when you are at your computer just as fast as on your mobile phone? I say that because most people are pretty fast at collecting on their phone—we’re doing so all the time—and not so good on their computer where we collect less frequently. 

Are there any keyboard shortcuts you can set up? If you were to have a brilliant idea, how would you collect that if you were sat at your computer? Are you clicking an icon or using a keyboard shortcut? Remember, keyboard shortcuts are fantastic because they save you a lot of time. 

All these questions are great because they force you to really look at how you are using your system. They pinpoint weaknesses and give you ideas you can use to make things better, smoother and faster. 

How are you organising your files and projects? Is it intuitive? Can you find what you want when you want it? The way we file stuff can often be a barrier to us getting on with our work and if we have no logical system and we cannot find the documents we need we resist and end up procrastinating. 

I find it can be helpful to have all current work in an easily accessible single folder or alternatively you can create links to the documents you are working on and add them to a master list in your notes app or individually in your to-do list. There are a lot of ways you can organise your stuff. The important thing is you organise it in a way you can find your stuff quickly when you need it. 

Another great question to ask is: has there been any complexity creep? Now, this happens to us all. Over time, we add stuff and rarely take it away. An example of this is labels tags or contexts in your to-do list. We add these all the time but rarely go in and purge unused ones. 

In my last review, I realised I did not need labels, contexts or tags in my to-do list. 

Over the last six months or so I have been ruthlessly reducing the number of tasks I do each day. Looking for tasks that will have the biggest impact on my projects and goals and focusing on them. I’ve purged a lot of tasks that do not drive things forward and as a result, I have fewer tasks on my list each day. 

This meant, I found I was no longer using labels (as we call contexts in Todoist) and so I deleted them completely from my system. And there I discovered something I suspected for a while. I don't need labels, contexts or tags. These were just slowing down my processing and not adding anything useful to my overall system. 

All I need is a focus for the day and a list of tasks I can realistically complete. My labels were not helping me at all. I rarely have calls to make or tool-specific work. My calendar contains all my coaching calls for me and inside each of those appointments are the details I need. Labels just felt like a legacy from a bygone era. An era when there were physical barriers between the tools we used—days when we did need a computer to read and reply to email—and the work that needed to be done. None of those barriers exists today. 

I can write blog posts while sat on a bus using my mobile phone. I can make calls from my computer and can ask a colleague a question via text message. Nothing I do is tool, place or people specific anymore. So, I no longer use “contexts”. 

Essentially, my reviews are all about simplifying and minimising. Which is rather apt as my theme for this year is minimalism. Like most people, I have far too much stuff and it’s time to reduce. This means I need to look at my system, reduce it and make sure it is operating at it’s most effective. 

With my productivity system, it is “app creep’” that causes the most problems. App creep is where we add productivity apps because we think they will make us more productive but because of the maintenance involved it does the opposite and we spend too much time updating the extra apps. Once you have the basics, a to-do list manager, a notes app and a calendar you really do not need any more than that. If you do, you need to ask yourself is the time cost involved in keeping up with all these apps giving you a good return on that investment? In my own personal experience, I have not found that to ever be the case. 

Now, occasionally I will test out some apps—particularly ones that are being talked about. Currently, I am testing a meditation app to help get me into the habit of daily meditation and a habit tracker to track my habits—the habit tracker is really to see how effective they are over a three month period. So far it’s been a lot of fun, but I do not anticipate habit trackers becoming an integral part of my system overall. I can do that with my own to-do list manager and once a habit is installed, you no longer need the tracker. Those kinds of apps can very easily be a part of the ‘app creep’.

Finally, to finish off my review I go through all the apps I have on my phone, iPad and computer and remove any I have not used over the last three months. My recent review found a Ryan Air and Aer Lingus app as well as some notes apps I had been testing since I started to have issues with my Evernote iOS app. It’s surprising how many of these you find hidden away in folders taking up space. Remove them. If you need them again in the future, you can always download them again. 

And there you go, Stuart. I full comprehensive rundown of why I do a review and what particularly I look for. I hope it gave you some ideas. Thank you for the question. 

Don’t forget, if you have a question if you have difficulties with time management and productivity, then please send in your question. All you need do is email me— or DM me on Facebook or Twitter. All the links are in the show notes.

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