Why You Should Build Your Productivity Around Your System, Not Your App.

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Getting Things Done by David Allen is one of the best books around for developing a productivity system. It provides a framework in which you can develop a tailor-made system. Unfortunately, as with all books that become a bible in an industry it gets interpreted in many competing ways.

We have the capture everything and spend an inordinate amount of time classifying and adding contexts to what you captured. Then we have the capture anything related to a project and add the task to the appropriate project and then we have the purists who add a context to everything and use contextual lists as their daily to-do list.

A lesson well learned

I’ve been a GTD aficionado for coming up to ten years now and I admit I have travelled through all interpretations. In the last few years though, I learnt when I spend time in my to-do list organising my projects and contexts, I am not doing work. I used to have the most wonderfully organised To-do list manager. Every task was meticulously labelled and each task was assigned to a project. It was an obsession with me. But around three years ago I realised spending two hours or so in my to-do list manager every day organising and reorganising wasn’t actually getting any work done. I felt I was doing work, but I was not. I got myself stuck in organising and planning mode and I never got a lot done each day.

And that is the problem when you spend so much time in your to-do list manager, or any productivity app organising and reorganising, you fall into the trap of believing you are being productive when you are not being productive at all. You are just being organising.

The difference between being organised and being productive.

Being organised and being productive are two very different things. Knowing where everything is is being organised, getting the important work done as efficiently and effectively as possible is being productive.

Now, being organised is a good thing. It can save you a lot of time because you are not wasting time looking for what you need to do your work. But just knowing where everything is does not make you productive. Having a to-do list manager that is meticulously organised with dates, labels, links and projects is good. But it does not necessarily mean any work is getting done. If no work is getting done then there is no productivity.

What you really need is a system that works for you.

What you need instead is a to-do list that contains your important tasks and shows them when you need them. A quick glance in the evening before you go to bed should show you what needs to be done the next day, and when the next day begins you get straight on doing the work that matters. A to-do list manager should filter out the unimportant tasks so what you see are the important tasks. When you create a to-do list that does that, you dramatically increase your productivity.

No app will do that for you, only the system you build will do that. It does not matter whether you are using Todoist, Things 3, OmniFocus, Trello or Notion, the app is only as good as the system you have in place. If the system you create involves a lot of maintenance, you are not going to be productive. You need to create a system that collects everything quickly and easily, where organising what you collect can be done in twenty minutes or less at the end of the day and the rest of the time it stays in the background only showing up when you have done your one or two most important tasks for the day.

What really matters.

What matters is you are doing work that takes you forward every day. To do that you need to be able to see what tasks will have the biggest impact on your important projects and goals. When you fill your to-do list manager with unimportant tasks they quickly drown out the tasks that would move you closer towards completing the project or achieving the goal and gives you a false sense of being productive when in reality you are just running round in circles. When you couple that with spending too much time maintaining your system, you are simply not getting enough done against the amount of time it takes to organise everything. The ratio you should be aiming for is 90% doing and 10% organising. That equates to 7 hours 40 minutes of doing work and 20 minutes organising in any given 8 hour working day.

This is why apps that have a large feature set fail in the long-run. While the developers are doing their best, feature-creep is a real problem for people who want to be more productive. More features mean more things to adjust and play around with. That requires time, time that would be better spent on doing work.

If you want to become more productive, so you can spend more time doing the things you enjoy doing, focus on your system and not the app. Streamline your system so it is focused on collecting and doing and make the organising as simple and as easy as possible. Aim for a 90% doing and 10% organising ratio and when you get there, you know your system is well on it’s way to working for you.

If you have the right system in place, a system that works for you, it will not matter what app you use. Your system will just work and that should be what you are aiming to build. Build your productivity around your system, not your app.


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My purpose is to help 1 million people by 2020 to live the lives they desire. To help people find happiness and become better organised and more productive so they can do more of the important things in life.

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