Many years ago when I moved over from an analogue productivity system to a digital one, I created a system based on what I had seen other people doing. I researched articles on the internet, read all the books and listened to podcasts. What I ended up with was a hodgepodge of a system that just didn’t work for me. I ended up with something that was too slow to collect tasks and ideas, was cumbersome to organise and seeing what needed doing next was a series of windows and button clicking that in the end, I was not bothering to even try and look at.
I also found my system changing all the time. I would read an article, watch a video or listen to a podcast that talked about another great way to organise all your to-dos and tasks and I would change my system. In the end, I had no consistency and no workable system.
Finally, I sat down and applied all the knowledge I had gained over the many months I had been researching and developing my own system. To do so, I began with two simple questions:
What do I want my productivity system to do for me?
Once I answered that question, I then moved on to the next question:
How can I create such a system given the tools and environment I have?
On a piece of paper, I mapped out exactly how I was going to create such a system. I applied a few rules, such as it had to be able to collect my ideas with one click, I had to be able to use keyboard shortcuts to process what I had collected at the end of the day and I had to be able to see what needed doing next simply by opening the app or apps I chose to use.
Speed and ease of collection were vital for me to get into the habit of collecting. I knew if it was hard to collect I wouldn’t do it and I would simply continue to rely on my rather unreliable memory. And there were other considerations such as the ability to sync across all my devices so I could collect with my phone and process from my desktop.
All these factors were written down on my sheet of paper. Once I had everything written down I began modelling different scenarios. I went through a typical day and imagined myself in those situations and with the tools I had with me, collecting thoughts and tasks. I imagined myself in meetings taking notes and managing the tasks I had been given in those meetings. I modelled every different scenario I could imagine. Even how I would manage my ideas when I was away on holiday. This modelling of different scenarios allowed me to tweak and adjust my planned system so it would work seamlessly in any given situation.
Most of all this work was done before I went down the road of productivity app selection. My to-do list manager was a gorgeous Quo Vadis Habana notebook for months. I wanted to know if the system I created on paper worked before I started investing in to-do list apps. The first app I invested in was Evernote because it synced across all my devices and I loved the idea of being able to collect notes on my iPhone and see them all magically appear on my desktop when I got home (that was a thing back in 2010 — the magic of it all!)
This process did not take a few hours. It actually took a few months, but over those few months what emerged was a system that worked for me. A system that has not let me down in the years I have been using it. Of course, as technology has improved I have adjusted my system. Now I can add tasks using Siri, I can also do a lot of my writing on my iPhone and iPad and I can store my working files in iCloud/Dropbox. At its core though, my system has remained unchanged over the years since I sat down back in 2010 and began creating it on a piece of paper.
Your life, your work and the way you think are unique to you and because of that someone else’s system is never going to work for you. Seeing other people’s systems can help give you ideas, but those systems will not work for you. You need to develop your very own system based on your personality type, the way you work, where you work and what is important to you. Just following like a sheep someone else’s system is going to result in something that just does not work for you.
At the core of my system is David Allen’s Getting Things Done Five Steps framework. It’s a beautiful framework because it is flexible and simple. I capture my stuff into inboxes, I process that stuff every twenty-four hours and I organise it into projects. I review everything at least once a week and I do the work. The one thing I have never been good at using is contexts, which I know is a fundamental part of Getting Things Done, but that is okay. I developed my own system. Instead of focussing on contexts, I have separate projects for my routine tasks and tasks that take my life further forward. That works better for me. However, I know for other people, working with contexts work brilliantly.
So, whether you are new to personal productivity or a seasoned master, the system you create needs to be a system you create for yourself. Sure, there is a lot of advice out there, but the only important thing about your system is that it helps you to make the right choices so you are doing the work that matters and not getting lost in an ocean of unimportant work that neither takes your life forward nor helps you to become a more productive person.
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