The Working With… Podcast

HowTo Build Your Own Productivity System

August 9, 2021

This week, it’s all about building a system that works for you and then making it stick—probably the more difficult part.


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Episode 193 | Script

Hello and welcome to episode 193 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 show gets a lot of questions around the topic of productivity systems and apps and this week’s question comes from this same topic. So strap yourself in for a little more advice on creating your own system and overcoming some of the more common traps you will encounter as you develop your own system.

Before we get to the question and answer, I want to say if you do have a question or you are experiencing some difficulty creating your own system, then all you need do is email me at and I will be more than happy to try and answer your question. 

Your questions help me to find solutions to difficulties around goal planning, time management, and productivity and they also help me to grow and improve my skills. I love helping, so if you feel I can help or answer any of your questions, please get in touch.

Okay, on with this week’s question 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 Monica. Monica asks: Hi Carl, thank you for all the content you produce. I wanted to ask you if there is a way to finally get myself organised and get my work and chores under control. I’ve spent years trying to organise myself but each time I try a new system, I stop using it after a week or two. Is there a secret I am missing or something? 

Hi Monica, thank you for the question.

Now, first up, you are not alone, Monica. I think everyone goes through this process at one time or another. I know I’ve been through it and it’s just a part of the journey. 

There is a lot of advice out there—most of it great advice—such as write everything down, plan your day and use a to-do list. The trouble with a lot of this advice is, it is not necessarily going to work for everyone. 

There are too many variables. Some of us spend a large part of our day driving between clients’ offices and so for a lot of the day we are unable to reply to emails or read important documents. Others, work in customer-facing jobs where there is no fixed time to do any focused work during the working day. So when it comes to productivity and time management systems it really is a case of one size does not fit all.

That said, there are still some fundamentals that should be put in place before you develop anything else. You need a simple, easy and quick way to collect everything. Your tasks, ideas, and commitments. Fortunately, your phone is likely to have something like Siri or Google Assistant, or if you are at home, Alexa. These voice-activated tools, are a great way to collect things while you are driving, cooking, or doing something else that prevents you from using your hands. 

Wherever you are on the productivity learning curve, I would always advise people to look at the way you collect your tasks and notes and ask yourself if there is a better and faster way to do this. The harder it is to collect things, the less likely you are to collect and that means even before your start there is a big hole in your system. 

Next, make sure you spend around ten to twenty minutes before you end the day and organise what you collected and then plan out the next day. This just needs to be turned into a habit. 

Now for both of the two basics above, there should not be any excuses. No matter what work you do, you can always look at the way you collect your stuff and see if there is a better, faster way and everyone can find ten to twenty minutes at the end of the day to organise and plan. 

If you don’t do these two very basic, simple things, it’s not a problem with your system, it’s a problem with you and your self-discipline and if you do have a problem with self-discipline you can fix that by buying yourself a house plant that requires watering every day. 

The daily practice of watering your plant develops discipline. If you do not consistently water your plant, it will die and you get to see the slow destruction of life when you don’t exercise self-discipline. 

The next thing to understand is that no one system is necessarily going to work for you. The act of collecting and organising is not a system, they are the absolute basic fundamentals of ALL systems. Everything else you may do is likely to be some system or another. 

The biggest problem I find with most people struggling to develop a system is they never give any system enough time to work. Whether that is David Allen’s Getting Things Done, Time Crafting, or the Time Sector System, none of these systems will work for you until you give them enough time to embed and work. 

Getting Things Done, for instance, is likely to take at least six months to become fully functional. There are a lot of moving parts and you will be experimenting with where to keep your project materials as well as developing your contexts. 

With the Time Sector System, you are going to be over-ambitious about what you can accomplish each week to start with and so there is a fair amount of adjusting to find the right balance. 

However, with enough time, a little adjusting, and resetting, whatever system you decide to use will eventually begin to bring you the desired results. You just have to give it time. 

Another mistake people make is they think an app will transform their time management and productivity. No, it won’t. The only tool that will transform the relationship with time is a calendar and whether you use Google, Apple, or Microsoft for your calendar is does not matter. All these calendars have pretty much the same functionality. They show you the same information in almost the same format. 

The task manager or notes app you use does not matter one jot to your system. There may be differences in the way each app collects and organises and that means the only thing you need to decide is how you want to organise and see your stuff. 

I usually advise people to pick an app they like the look of and then spend as much time as they can really learning how to use it. That’s the secret to finding an app you like. 

Frequently changing apps because the latest app looks nicer is the most damaging thing you can do to your overall productivity. Every week I get emails from app developers asking me to take a look at their new app. I don’t. I understand apps have nothing to do with whether you become better at managing your time and more productive. It’s the system you use that does that.

There are thousands of apps trying to tempt you to use them. Don’t be tempted. The best way to avoid being tempted is to stop looking. 

Let me tell you a secret, these developers who ask me to review their products are usually offering to pay me to do so. If my YouTube channel or this podcast was used to make money, it would be very tempting to take the money and tell you that this product or that one is the new app everyone should be using. 

Don’t worry, I won’t do that. But if I am being offered money to preview products, how many app reviewers are you watching ARE taking the money to tell you how great a new product is? 

When it comes to organising your stuff, this is one of the most personal things you are going to have to do. We all have a different way we want to see, collate and manage our work. What works for one person is not going to work for you. You likely do a different kind of work and have very different personal stuff to manage and think differently.

I began my working life in the 1990s, which means when I began work, everything was filed alphabetically in grey filing cabinets. That’s what I got used to and that is what still works for me when it comes to filing my documents in iCloud.

My Evernote is tagged alphabetically. Although over the many years I’ve been using Evernote, I have developed a system for finding things using keywords and titles.

If I am looking for an article I saved on the blue blazer Roger Moore wore in The Spy Who Loved Me, I would search Evernote for “TSWLM, Blazer” (I code all James Bond Movies using the letters of their title) and that would find exactly what I am looking for—I know, I just tested it. 

And that’s the ‘secret’ if you like. Over time, as you get used to the apps you are using, you will develop your own way of doing things and because you developed them, they WILL work for you. 

But you have to understand that it takes time for that to happen. Often it will take years to find a settled method and it will continue evolving. 

One way to ensure your system grows with you and continues to develop is to do a three-monthly review. Everything three months, I ask myself if there is a better way? I look at how I am collecting—can I make it faster? Often a small tweak somewhere can speed things up a little. And I also look at how I am planning the week and day. There I am looking to shorten the process as much as possible. 

Email is a good example. Over the years I have been doing videos, blog posts, and podcasts on productivity, the amount of email I receive each day has increased. This means I need to refine and try and find ways to make managing email more efficient and effective. 

This looking for continuous improvement has resulted in me being able to process an inbox of 100 emails in around fifteen minutes. 

So, if you want to improve your mythology and develop a system that works for you, Monica, then begin with the basics. Look at how you collect and organise your tasks. Then look at how you are filing your documents. Where are you putting them, how are you categorising them, and make sure you follow your own guidelines. 

Following these simple steps will ultimately lead you to create your very own way of doing things and that is the one that will consistently work for you. Other people’s system may give you a few pointers, but in the end, whatever system you develop it must work for you. 

I hope that helps, Monica. Good luck with your productivity and organisational journey because that is what it is—a journey.

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

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