Steve Fenton

The Ultimate Productivity Suite

If we were honest with ourselves about the number of hours we might have left to live and the amount of stuff we would like to get done, we’d have to admit that it isn’t all going to get done. Even based on our more optimistic estimates of longevity, it’s not going to get done; and we don’t really know what the Universe has planned for us. Without some kind of personal productivity process we end up not really getting as much done as we’d like. This isn’t about tasks to be done for work; it’s about everything you want to do. You might be writing music as a hobby and you’d like to hit the studio to record some of it. You might be mulling over the plot of a fantastic novel that you might one day write. You might have come up with an idea for a new electrolyser with a bamboo-based semi-permeable membrane layer. You might not even be stuck trying to choose between all the cool options in your head. This affects work, it affects our personal lives. It stops us achieving stuff.

Quite a lot of personal productivity boils down to “write down a list”, but there are three ideas that provide a deeper and more useful model for achieving things. What’s even better is that, with practice, they eventually combine into the Ultimate Productivity Suite.

Why is this needed?

The psychology perspective on this is that if you have all this stuff in your head, your brain feels a need to revisit it all regularly and work on it in the background. This isn’t great for your mind.

The stoic view on this is that we’re basically going to die one day and there’s a chance that won’t be much different from how we were when we were alive. To put it another way, if we procrastinate and never achieve anything that we want to do, why are we so worried about dying? “It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.” (Seneca).

The mindfulness take on this is that if we do things in the right way, they are more joyful. Imagine that… you could enjoy doing stuff.

The Ultimate Productivity Triumvirate

I’ll present the three ideas from the broadest big-picture techniques down to the tiny step techniques. If you haven’t used any of these, you may find it easier to start from the inside and add the outer layers once you feel you have mastered the small stuff.

Getting Things Done

This is where you transfer all the mental load from your head into a system of organisation. You need to pay attention to everything that is taxing your little grey cells and push them out of the wetware and into something paper-based or digital.

The steps are:

  1. Collect stuff that has your attention
  2. Make it actionable (either as a multi-step project or as a simple next actionable task)
  3. Organise these projects and actions
  4. Review them regularly
  5. Do (some of) them

See Getting Things Done

Shopping list…

  • Some folders (paper or digital – I find paper works better, but do what works for you)

Personal Kanban

Personal Kanban is the system of choice for organising the stuff you’ve decided is worth doing soon. There are two key points.

  1. Visualise your work
  2. Limit your work-in-progress

The idea here is to avoid trying to work on too many things at once and to have a really powerful visual control system to see what’s going on. There are also tactile benefits to doing this physically, so if you can you sticky-notes for it, do!

See Personal Kanban

Shopping list…

  • Sticky notes
  • Marker pens

The Pomodoro Technique

This is a very specific, low-level, and powerful way to manage your time for a single day at a time.

  1. Start your day by planning your time
  2. Pick a task from the plan
  3. Set a timer for 25 minutes
  4. Work on the task until your time is up
  5. Mark the session down on the paper
  6. Take a break

This seems simple (and it will be with practice) – but bear in mind there are three key points. Firstly, you start your day by thinking about what you want to achieve. This will help you make good decisions about what goes on the list and what doesn’t. Secondly, you work in short, focussed, interrupted chunks of time. Thirdly, you take breaks to make sure you can maintain that intense focus throughout the whole day. To the uninitiated, this looks like magic.

See The Pomodoro Technique

Shopping list…

Full disclosure: I didn’t like any of the available daily planners for The Pomodoro Technique, so I’m creating my own workbook for this, which will be available to buy or to download for free under a Creative Commons license. I’m not profiteering from this, I literally created this for myself.

The combination

Use Getting Things Done to collect and organize all your projects and to generate your next action for each one.

Use Personal Kanban to track your projects and actions as options, to track your progress, and to limit how much you attempt to work on at one time.

Use The Pomodoro Technique to manage your daily time and focus on the tasks on your Personal Kanban board.

Summary

Please don’t mistake this as a plan for going faster. You will get more done and the tasks you choose will be more likely to be the things that will contribute towards your goals. However, the point here is to take more joy in the work, have more focus on the stuff you want to achieve, and to use your time and energy in a thoughtful way.