All Productivity Systems Boil Down to These 4 Principles


When it comes to productivity systems, everyone has one that:

  • Used to work for them
  • Has been working for the last 24 hours
  • Sounds like it would work
  • Never works

However, with new productivity books coming out all the time, how are you supposed to keep track of all of them? Do you need to use a branded journal? Do you need a special app? Do you need to buy a training program to help your team get more done?

Leaders are especially notorious for finding what they think is the best productivity system in the world, sending it to everyone on the team, and then wondering why not everyone is as excited as you are. 

We go through phases. Is everyone practicing GTD? What’s your frog today? How could we forget our Pomodoro timers!

The good news is that most productivity gurus are all saying the same thing, so you don’t need to do deep research on every trend that comes up. Instead of forcing new productivity systems on your team, start with the basics. 


The four pillars of productivity

All the productivity systems out there fit into one of these principles:

  • Task management – a way to collect and organize all the stuff you have to do
  • Prioritization – a way to decide what you do first
  • Time management – a way to structure your day so that you get the most important things done
  • Focus – a way to reduce distractions and accomplish your goals 

That’s it. Everything falls under one of these. If you and your team have a solid plan for how to do each of the pillars, you will be well on your way to being extremely productive. 

Now, here are some of the most popular productivity systems out there and see how they fall into the productivity principles. 


Pillar 1: Task management

The heart of task management is David Allen’s adage: your mind is for having ideas, not holding them. There are a limited number of things you can hold in your brain at one time, so you need a way to organize ideas and tasks as they spill over. 

When you record your tasks somewhere else, you can rest easy knowing that you aren’t forgetting to do something. Your anxiety can be better directed towards the number of things you have to get done, rather than on remembering what to do :-). 

Here are some common productivity systems that fall in this category:

Getting things done

GTD or Getting Things Done is a framework introduced by David Allen in his book of the same name. It starts with brainstorming and capturing ideas in a notepad or an online tool. Every time an idea pops into your head, you make a note of it. 

With GTD, you break down big tasks into the smallest possible next step so that your tasks are very actionable. GTD also gives you an algorithm to process your tasks and organize them into things that need to be done sooner or later. You provide context for every task so that you don’t have to start from zero when it’s time to work on it. 

Kanban

Kanban boards were originally used as a tool for project management, but it turns out they are pretty good for task management as well. Instead of the GTD algorithm, you write your tasks on cards and put them in one of three columns: to-do, doing, and done. 

(Some people like to have additional columns, such as “nearly thinking about doing” and “haven’t thought about doing in ages”.) 

This visual layout lets you see items as they move across the board. 

Kanban is cool because you can go full analog with pen-and-paper sticky notes up on a physical board and still feel cool. While highly visual, it can’t be transported easily. Instead, digital tools like Trello and Kissflow give you a digital board that functions the same way, but is also accessible anywhere. 

Kanban boards are also nice when it comes to shared tasks among a team. 


Pillar 2: Prioritizing

Prioritization is a deceptively simple concept. Anyone can do it, but few do. 

We get caught up in the moment and everything seems to be the most important thing in the world, or we are eager to get the easy stuff off our plate first. We act like firefighters that put out (and sometimes light) fires all the time.

If you are bad a prioritizing, you might be incredibly efficient at things that don’t matter that much. Here are the productivity systems that center on prioritization. 

Eisenhower matrix

You’ve seen this one before. Urgency vs. importance. True productivity is focusing on the tasks that are both. The only problem with this matrix is that both axes are subjective, and in the right frame of mind, you can be convinced that anything is both important and urgent. The trick is to take your time and actually rank the importance and urgency of tasks rather than assigning it an arbitrary value. 

The Eisenhower Decision Matrix

Eat that frog

Mark Twain once famously didn’t say, “If the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog, you can go through the day with the satisfaction of knowing that that is probably the worst thing that is going to happen to you all day long.”

This productivity principle was popularized by Brian Tracy in his time management book. You pick the most difficult, yet most important task (the frog), first. It’s the item on your to-do list that you have no motivation to do. You move on to other tasks only when you’re done with the frog.

Doing the most challenging task first thing means that no matter how the rest of the day goes, it starts off with success. 

Similar to Eat that frog is the MIT system (most important task). Some productivity systems advocate for picking three MITs instead of just one. 

Pareto principle

Pareto principle, also known as the 80/20 rule, states that 80 percent of the effects comes from 20 percent of the causes.

So, when it comes to prioritizing, you should forget the 80 percent of stuff and focus only on the 20 percent that is actually going to produce results. 


Pillar 3: Time management

Now that you know what you are going to be working on, you need to make the time to do it. Most people feel like their days get away from them, but if you are at the office for eight hours, that’s actually quite a lot of time to get things done. If you plan out you day well, you have all the time you need to be productive. 

Pomodoro technique

The pomodoro principle requires you to break your workday into 25-minute blocks of time followed by a 5-minute break. After about four of these ‘pomodoros’, you take a longer break. 

We tend to believe that we have an endless supply of time. The pomodoro technique breaks this notion by instilling a sense of urgency. This is based on Parkinson’s law, which states that we’ll complete a task in the time that we’ve allotted for it. By creating a faux-urgency that you have only 25 minutes left to complete a task, you tend to work faster and more focused.

The forced break reminds you to take a breather once in a while and prevents mental fatigue. 

Time-boxing

The weakness of the pomodoro system is that it treats every task as the same, whether it is a quick email or an hour-long sales call. The 25-minute period works great for me, because most of my day revolves around writing. I can write for that time, take a quick break, and return to my task until it’s done. But, this may not be the case for every line of work. Imagine being in the middle of a sales call and telling the client that you’ll be back in five because your timer goes off. Yikes!

The time-boxing technique overcomes this drawback by being flexible and giving you control over how much time to allocate for every task. You estimate how much time you want to spend doing a task, work within this time box, and take a break when the set time runs out. Here’s a list of time management apps that can help.

Biological prime time

Detailed by Sam Carpenter in Work the System, this time management system tries to take advantage of natural ebbs and flows in your momentum, energy, and focus throughout the day. You chart out when you are typically most focused and do your most intense activities there. When you naturally slump down, you can do tasks that don’t require as much thought.


Pillar 4: Focus

There’s not much worse that getting everything set perfectly, knowing you have your most important task in front of you, having significant time blocked out to do it, and then checking Facebook just before you start. 

You can do all the planning and prioritizing in the world but if you are easily distracted and switch between tasks, then you’re not managing your time effectively. Dr. Gloria Mark says that it can take up to 23 minutes to get back to the original task after being distracted or interrupted. So, it’s crucial to focus on the task at hand, finish them, and move on to the next. 

Here are a few productivity systems dedicated to helping you focus.

To-don’t list

There are plenty of things you do in the middle of work that you know you shouldn’t be doing. These are the ones that affect your productivity, your super-villains. Like twitter scrolling. One minute you’re seeing what’s trending on twitter and then an hour later, you end up taking a Buzzfeed quiz to see what kind of bread you are.

Make a list of all the activities and habits you know you shouldn’t be doing and stick to it. It’s as simple as that. 

The real challenge is sticking to it and you need an insane amount of willpower to work against your impulses. But, by listing all your productivity-hampering habits, you tell your brain that you’ll no longer focus on them. 

  • Don’t check social media from 10am to 5pm
  • Don’t check emails more than two times a day
  • Don’t set up meetings from 9am to 12pm
  • Don’t speak to Dave about the latest movies on Netflix
  • Don’t look at funny cat videos during work

Free to focus

This one comes from Michael Hyatt. It has three steps: Stop, cut, and act. With each one, you examine your habits and behaviors and find ways to avoid more distractions in your life. 

There are also many individual apps that promise to help you focus better and reduce the digital distractions that make up a large part of our lives. 


Back to work

Productivity is a big thing for leaders, but there are just too many systems out there. If you jump from one to another, you’ll never actually get anything done. 

When you look at the four productivity pillars, you’ll be naturally better at some and struggle with others. Where you find yourself lacking, you can try to find some good systems specifically designed around those principles. 

But also remember that your teams will take on their own productivity personality as well. You may be great at prioritizing, but horrible at distracting each other. 

As a leader, it’s your job to find the areas where your team needs support, and explore systems that can help your productivity skyrocket. 

PS: Check out our podcast episode with Sujan Patel to know how he runs nine companies but still has time for skydiving.

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