There is no shortage of timers, calendars, to-do lists, apps and journals promising to revolutionise your time management and boost your productivity sky high, but how do you know which ones work?
In the coming weeks we’ll be sharing our favourite productivity tools with you - the high tech and the low tech - but today we thought we’d start where we like to start things here at Potential HQ, from first principles.
Any tool is only as good as your understanding of why it works and most of the productivity tools available today are based on one of the following methods, shown to get the best results.
Eat the Frog
Literary genius, Mark Twain, famously said* “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you for the rest of the day.”
He had a point. It’s hard to imagine much worse than a live frog for breakfast.
The metaphor has stuck as one of the most popular productivity principles in use today. In “Eat the Frog”, you tackle the hardest and most important thing on your to-do list first. Choose the task that will have the biggest impact on your life and get it done first up.
This might not be the best method if you think ALL of your tasks are top priority. In order for this approach to work you must establish your priorities up front. Ask yourself, ‘What do I want to achieve most?’ and ta-da, there’s your frog.
The ‘eat the frog’ method makes it easy to prioritise and focus on the bigger picture. It works because once you’ve started on a task, your brain doesn’t like open tabs. It likes to keep going until the task is completed. Eat the Frog is also great ‘bang for your buck’ because you get to cross off the most important and overwhelming task on your list right away, giving you that all important dopamine hit that keeps you motivated. Ah, the satisfaction!
GTD (Get Things Done)
Productivity consultant, David Allen, author of the bestselling book Getting Things Done: The art of stress-free productivity and creator of the GTD system, breaks the GTD method into 5 steps: capture, clarify, organise, reflect, and engage.
Capture. Write down everything that you need to get done (hourly tasks, daily tasks, monthly tasks, ad hoc tasks, project outcomes and the like). I call this a ‘brain dump,’ Then…
Clarify. Is the task do-able? Can YOU do something about it? If you can’t, get it off your list. However, if it is actionable then you have to decide what the next steps are. Action every item that you can do in two mins and get them off your list. Do it right away.
Then think about the items that you can delegate or that require other people’s help. Delegate and get them off your list. Narrow down your list, rinse, and repeat. Now you should have a streamlined list of actionable items for which you are responsible.
Organise. It’s time to put those action items into categories. You determine the categories that best suit you, for example, ‘Emails for response’ or ‘Phone calls to make’. You can also file them under deadlines, such as ‘Complete Today’ or Complete within the week.’ Create categories that work for you and fit your needs and move on to step three.
Reflect. Check your list. Check it twice. Have you covered everything? Revisit it once a week, or once a month, or whatever schedule works for you.
Engage. Start checking off tasks from your list. You have a working battle plan of what to do and how to do it, complete with action items and deadlines. The thinking is already done. It’s time to take action.
Why does it work?
The simple act of writing out what needs to be done, when and how, relieves us of anxiety and allows us to focus. It’s the kick start we need to stop procrastinating and get stuff done.
The Eisenhower Matrix
Former US President Dwight Eisenhower and reported productivity powerhouse once said, “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.” To prove his point he designed a matrix for weeding out those tasks that clamour for our attention, distracting us from mission critical.
According to Eisenhower, a good plan involves examination of your tasks to decide whether they are urgent or not urgent, or important or not-so-important. Depending on which quadrant they fall into, you Do It Now (important and urgent), Decide When (Important but not urgent eg. exercise), Delegate (who else can do it?) or Delete (ditch it altogether).
This process keeps you focused on those tasks that will make the biggest difference in the long run, freeing you from those with little return on the investment of your time and effort.
Scrum is a popular productivity methodology originally used for software development but it adapts well to personal projects too, especially those that have stalled for some reason (lack of resources, lack of interest, lack of direction, lack of time!)
The first thing to do is to set up a personal scrum board (the Potential Psychology team has a huge whiteboard at Potential HQ). A scrum board is used to track the progress of a sprint. A sprint is a single work cycle inside of a larger project. It’s important to break any project into more manageable parts, but those parts also need to be tracked and managed. We call these parts stories. Each story may be broken down further into different tasks.
Here at Potential HQ, our podcast is a project and each episode is a sprint. Within each sprint we have a list of stories such as interviewing, editing, preparing our show notes, publishing and promoting. Within each of these there are a series of tasks. By tracking our projects using a scrum board the team can see at any given moment, our progress, our tasks and our successes.
Finding the right method for getting stuff done is a personal pursuit. What works for some might not work for you. The best strategy is to test and try different approaches, see which fits and do more of it to amp up your productivity, satisfaction and well being.
*Often attributed to Mark Twain. No-one really knows.