The Working With… Podcast

What Does a “Perfect” Productivity System Look Like?

January 20, 2020

How should a great productivity system be working? That’s the question I’m answering this week in the Working With Podcast. 



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Episode 116

Hello and welcome to episode 116 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.

My guess is if you are listening to this podcast you have some interest in productivity and time management. And for people like us (I certainly have an interest), there is a huge resource of material around that showcases how to set things up so you can become more productive and be more efficient with your time. 

But the question is, with all this advice around, what does an effective, efficient, well-managed productivity system look like? How does it really operate when it comes face to face with everyday life? 

Well, today, I will try to answer those questions.

But first, I just want to give you a heads up that if you enrol in either my Your Digital Life, Time and Life Mastery or Create Your Own Apple Productivity courses you can get my Complete Guide To Creating A Successful Life course completely FREE. That’s almost two hours of learning that will help you build momentum towards a life you love living and towards making progress every single day towards whatever you define as success. 

The Complete Guide To Creating A Successful Life normally costs over $100s, but for this month only you can get that course for free. So if you are serious about building a great system—a system that works for you—then now would be a fantastic time to pick up one of these courses and begin your journey today.

All the details are in the show notes.

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 Natalie. Natalie asks, Hi Carl, I’ve been following your YouTube channel and a lot of other productivity YouTubers as well and you all have different ways of organising and doing things. What I really want to know is what does a ‘perfect’ productivity or time management system look like?

Hi Natalie, thank you for sending in your fantastic question. It’s a question that got me thinking because in a sense you hit upon a very important point. There are a lot of different ways of creating a system, many will work well, a lot will not. The question to ask is how can I build a system that will work for me? 

So, to begin with, let’s ask why do we need a productivity and time management system in the first place? 

If we go back to the era before industrialisation, when we lived an agrarian life, we did not need anything more than a seasonal calendar. We certainly did not need a to-do list manager or a daily diary. Our work was determined by the seasons and the weather. We planted in the spring and we gathered in the autumn. In the summer we looked after our crops and in the winter we cleaned up and repaired our stuff. Very simple really.

Then came industrialisation, but even then the majority of us did not really need elaborate calendars or to-do lists. Factory work was simple. We turned up, went to our work station, did our work and then came home. 

We then became information workers. Now we no longer had a fixed job. Now we were managing information. This changed everything because suddenly nothing was fixed. We became much more reliant on other people for information. Computers needed information inputting and we needed to make sure we had the right information in the right place at the right time. 

Meetings were invented (well, I can’t imagine a farmer 200 years ago having a meeting to decide what to do next can you? It was obvious), water cooler chat and cc’d email. It all became so much more complex and this led to the birth of management consultants whose job it appears was to make things even more complex by creating processes and procedures and managing it all in an Excel file—which rather than reducing a worker’s workload all it did was increase it.

To combat this information overload, we created time management systems, desk diaries and so much more. The question is, did any of this really help us to become more productive and be able to focus on what was really important? I’m not so sure. 

So, to get back to your questions Natalie, what does, a ‘perfect’ productivity system look like in 2020. How can we manage all the inputs that come our way, get our work done and still have time and energy at the end of the day to spend it with the people we really care about?

Well, first up, you should make sure you have the five foundations balanced. That’s have enough sleep, eat the right kinds of foods, drink enough water, take regular exercise and make sure you have a plan for the day. Getting these five areas in balance will go along way towards keeping you energised throughout the day. 

But what kind of system is a perfect system anyway? 

The short answer is any system that works for you and achieves a balance between getting your work done and allowing you the time to do the things you want to do without causing stress or friction. 

Okay, now that we have a kind of working definition, how do we translate that into a system?

The basics of any system is you collect what needs to be done, you make a decision about what needs doing with those things, organise them so you are reminded of them when you need to be reminded of them and you have enough time each day to do the work that needs doing. Simple yes? Well, sort of.

It’s here where I see a lot of people overthinking and over complicating things. 

Really all you need is a way to organise your tasks. Now, for me, I like to organise my tasks into three areas. Active projects—that’s real projects I am currently working on. Routines—those everyday tasks that just need to be done. And my areas of focus—that’s the things I have identified as being important to me. 

My goals, life’s mission and my purpose will fall under my areas of focus. For example, I want to maintain a high level of physical fitness. I identify fitness as being a part of who I am. That’s an area of focus. However, if you look at my physical fitness area of focus you will find there’s hardly anything in there. Why? That’s because maintaining my physical fitness is just something I do. I do not need a task reminding me to workout. It’s scheduled on my calendar. It’s a non-negotiable part of my life. Having a task come up on my to-do list is pointless. I’m going to work out. That’s non-negotiable. 

Now, of course, there’s going to be little things that come up each day. A call you need to make, a follow up that needs doing and an email or two that requires a reply. It’s here where I see people struggling the most. Yet, if you maintain a simple system, you will just set aside some time each day to reply to messages, emails and phone calls. 

In my case, I set aside thirty to sixty minutes each day for communications. This involves replying to emails that need replies, answering questions on my YouTube channel and responding to questions on Twitter or Facebook. It also involves following up on clients and students. Because I have a set, dedicated period of time each day for this, I do not need to feel stressed or overwhelmed. I just go into my email, YouTube and Facebook dashboard and reply. The goal is to get to the bottom, but it’s not a problem if I don’t. As long as the most important, time-sensitive ones are responded to, I feel satisfied. 

And, don’t buy into the idea that you must reply to an email within the hour. This is ridiculous. Email is never urgent. Ever! If something was urgent, you would be contacted by phone or text message. And if you work with someone who does think email is urgent, you should gently educate them to better ways of communicating. 

Once you have a place to keep your tasks, projects and areas you want to focus on, all you need to do is to spend ten to fifteen minutes at the end of the day on what I used to call the Golden ten, but realise a better name is the “Focused Ten”. That’s the ten tasks you want to get completed tomorrow. I pick two objectives—the two tasks I will complete whatever happens—and eight other tasks that I will do whatever I can to complete, but it would not be the end of the world if I were unable to do. 

Now because my tasks are organised into active projects and areas of focus it is very easy to do a quick look through all my active projects and select my ten tasks. Most of the time these are already pre-selected because I always do a weekly review. Once a week, I review all my active projects and decide what I will work on the next week. 

And that’s really all there is to it. The stuff I collect each day gets processed at the end of the day into their respective projects or areas—or more often than not just get completed directly from my inbox. 

Once you do have a system in place the trick is to spend as little time as possible in there. You see, the more time you spend inside your ‘system’ the less time you spend doing the work. That is when you find you have less time for the things you want to spend time doing. So, keep things simple, don’t create complex hierarchies of projects, sub-projects and todos. Organise things in their natural places, give yourself some time at the end of each day to plan the next day—the ten things you want to focus on—and just get on and do your work. If you are interrupted by a request, add it to your inbox and get back to doing your work. 

And that’s really all there is to it. 

Hopefully, that’s given you some ideas, Natalie. If you want more information about this, you can take my FREE productivity course, the Collect, Organise and Do system. That will help you to set up a system for yourself. 

Thank you for the question, and thank you to all of you for listening. Don't forget, if you have a question you would like answering, then you can do so by emailing me— or DMing me on Twitter or Facebook. 

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