The Working With Podcast | Episode 46 | How To Keep Things Simple

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In this week’s episode of the Working With Podcast, I answer a question about keeping your system simple.

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Hello and welcome to episode 46 of my Working With Podcast. A podcast created to answer all your questions about productivity, GTD, time management, self-development and goal planning. My name is Carl Pullein and I am your host for this show.

This week it’s all about simplicity and simplifying overwhelming and complex productivity systems. This is something that can happen and when it does it becomes a huge drain on your whole productivity. 

Before we get into this week’s question, I’d like to say a big thank you to all of you whole got involved in last week’s coupon sale. It was a shame to let all those coupons go without finding a good home. It’s so nice to know that so many of you are determined to become better organised and more productive. So a big thank you and always remember I will be here to give you support whenever you need it. 

Okay, on to this week’s question, so that means it’s time for me to hand you over to the mystery podcast voice for this week’s question

This week’s question comes from Darius. Darius asks: I know you write and talk a lot about keeping your system simple, so could you give us some tips on how to do so? 

Thank you Darius for your question. Okay, let's start at the beginning. If you are new and are developing your own productivity system remember all you need is COD—that’s Collect, Organise and Do—as the base for your system. That means whatever system you develop it needs to be developed around quick and easy collection, simple organisation and a simple view of what you need to do. Think of that as your base. From there you can start building. 

So what do I mean “quick and easy collection”? What I mean is that whenever you have an idea, make a commitment or have an event, you need to be able to collect it into a place you trust quickly and easily. Today, that would probably be on your phone. Our phone is the one device we are likely to be carrying with us everywhere we go so it makes sense for this to be your primary collection tool. Now whether you choose a separate app for your to-dos, notes and appointments or an all in one collection app is up to you. I personally use an app called Drafts that allows me to collect anything in one place and then I can distribute those items to my to-do list, notes app or calendar when I have time to distribute them. What this does is simplify my collection process to just one app. And Drafts is simple—open the app and start typing. I’ve found nothing comes close to the speed and ease for collecting that Drafts gives me. 

Collecting could also be a simple pocket notebook you carry with you. Just write down everything you want to collect and organise it later. That’s actually the way I started building my productivity system years ago. Everything was collected into a little notebook and when I got back to my desk I used to tear off the notes I had collected and put them in my physical in-tray. It worked extremely well. But now with cloud-based computing and apps that sync between all my devices, I find collecting on my phone to be the easiest and most efficient way to collect. 

Okay, so once you have everything collected, how do you organise all that stuff. That’s where you need to be focused on simplicity. I’ve seen people with hundreds of clients create project folders for each client. Now that can work, but if most of those clients need little to no work doing on them, then they are just cluttering up your projects list. That kind of situation would probably mean you need to use a dedicated CRM system. A to-do list manager is not going to do that job very well. A proper CRM system would manage your clients much better and allow you to monitor marketing and call activities better. Now there are many ways you can organise your projects, notes and events. But what you need to do is find a way that works for you. What I mean by that is when you need to find a note you know exactly where to look, or what search term to use. A simple structure I use is to have an active projects list—which usually has no more than six to ten projects—and an areas of focus list that I organise by my different roles. That could be “Family”, Teacher”, “Online course creator”, “Social Media Manager” etc. 

What I find is that pretty much all the tasks I collect each day can be filed into one of those projects or areas of focus. 

For my notes, I use a simple folder or notebook structure between work and personal and tag things pretty much in the same way an old-fashioned filing cabinet worked. That is alphabetically. Be careful with this. When you do set up your notes filing system you need to be thinking about how you will retrieve notes when you need them. I find a good way to think about this is watch how you naturally go to find something. For example, if I want to find a quote I saved from Jim Rohn, all I need to do is type “Jim Rohn Quotes” into my notes app and all the quotes I have collected from Jim Rohn will come up in the search. (I have a lot of quotes from Jim Rohn) Or I could be thinking about buying a new sweater and I remember seeing a sweater Daniel Craig wore in Spectre. All I need to do is type in my notes app search field “Spectre sweaters” and I will find the sweaters I am looking for and the company that made it. (N Peal of London for those of you interested—great company) 

Now, I know that means I have to do a little extra work when I process my notes, but that little extra effort saves me time in the long run because I know how my brain works and I understand how I search for things. That’s why it is important to know how YOU search for things and not try and copy someone else’s way of searching. They will inevitably think differently from you.

Now the doing part needs to be as simple as possible. If you date everything you are going to end up with huge lists of uncompleted tasks each day. No matter how much you would like to get something done you are just not going to have the time to do twenty or thirty tasks. if everything is dated you are going to do the easy stuff first. It’s just human nature. It takes a lot of discipline to force yourself to do the unpleasant tasks first. A better way is to utilise the Golden Ten daily planning method—spend ten minutes at the end of the day and with your calendar open schedule no more than ten tasks to do the next day. Two of which should be what I call “Objective tasks” two tasks that if you do not do anything else that day, those two tasks will get done. These two tasks should be important, project or goal tasks, NOT regular routine tasks. You want to be moving forward each day on either your projects or your goals. Now I will be honest here, I have two daily lists. The first is my ten tasks, the second is my daily routine tasks. Things like updating my subscriber lists, take the garbage out etc. I don’t need to really think too much about these types of tasks, but I like to have a daily reminder of what routines I should be getting done that day—just simple maintenance tasks if you like. That list is a list I go to at the end of the day to make sure my routines for the day have been done. 

And that’s really about it. All you really need to do is focus on the three parts of your productivity system. The collecting, make that as quick and easy as possible. Make sure how you organise your to-dos, documents and events make it easy to find what you need when you need it and spend the rest of your time doing the work. 

Other tips I would give include not constantly switching apps. That’s going to do nothing for your productivity. Switching means you have to learn a new way of doing things which will only slow you down, and having to export all your to-dos, notes and events to another app is never easy, no matter what the developer claims. Things never transfer over neatly. 

Regularly removing old, no longer needed stuff is another way to keep things simple. Emails particularly have a bad habit of hanging around If you no longer need it delete it. What you want to achieve is a fast, clean easily maintained system. Having old legacy files cluttering up your system is only going to slow things down and you will be ploughing through lists irrelevant, out of date stuff. Another area where time is wasted. 

To keep things simple mean’s you should focus on what it is you want to achieve. Getting caught up in breaking things down into tiny little steps might seem like good advice, but what that does is cause you to lose focus on the outcome. Often you can achieve the outcome you desire by just getting yourself focused on doing the work in a distraction-free environment with the minimal of tools and apps. One of my most productive environments is a coffee shop, two hours, my iPad and Ulysses. The amount of work I get done in this environment is enormous. Simple tools, simple apps. And that’s really the secret of keeping things simple. 

One final piece of advice though. Stop trying to hack apps to do things they were not designed to do. A good notes app is not a good to-do list manager and a good to-do list manager is not a good notes app. Sure, you might like the idea of having everything in one place, but whenever you get an app that tries to be all things, you end up with compromises that ultimately means things will break. Just don’t go there. 

I hope that answers your question, Darius. Thank you for sending it in. Don’t forget if you have a question you would like answering, just get in touch via email (carl@carlpullein.con) or DM me on Twitter or Facebook. All the details are in the show notes. 

Thank you all for listening and it just remains for me now to wish you all very very productive week.