Building a Productivity System That Works For You
Here’s the first thing you need to be productive
Thomas Edison said, “The object of all work is production or accomplishment and to either of these ends there must be forethought, system, planning, intelligence, and honest purpose, as well as perspiration. Seeming to do is not doing.”
There are all kinds of tools that are designed to help with productivity and accomplishment. There are tools to help you manage to-do lists, calendars, emails, and all other parts of your life.
Some of them are designed beautifully and work quite well. On the other hand, their current job might be collecting dust in your home or taking up space in your hard drive storage with no thumbprints bothering its icon.
What you really need is a better system, routines built with better habits. This is what will make you productive.
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Know exactly what you’re aiming towards.
Building a better habit itself is a challenge. You’re challenging the status quo. You’re getting out of your comfort zone.
When your body is used to a physical routine, it’s built up muscle memory. If you’re put in certain situations or if you’re performing a specific task, your body will automatically respond in a certain way, for better or worse.
This is because of the repetition that your body has gone through.
The thing about building up new habits is you have to break down old ones. Unlearning old habits can be just as tough as building up new ones.
Albert Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
It begins with a vision of your goal. Once you have a vision ingrained in you, you can turn the wheels to produce action.
The important thing about producing action is consistency. You don’t have to climb a mountain everyday as long as you take a step. If you look at any high performer, whether it’s business, athletics, or musicians, results come from consistent performance whether it’s practice or in front of an audience.
High performers pour in the effort and the work. It’s not a dump, but a steady pour. Whether it’s taking in knowledge or practicing their craft, they put in the time.
What motivates them to keep moving is their vision of their goal and the system they use for their activities.
Their system might be someone–a mentor, a trainer, a coach, or peers pursuing similar goals–that pushes them.
It might be an external or internal trigger that tells them when their day job is done, it’s time to go to a specific location to clock in a session of activity. Maybe it’s a coffee shop or a library to work on that personal project. Maybe it’s the local track to improve strength.
These are all systems that help high performers produce or accomplish in one sense or another.
Build Habits and a System That Encourage Productivity
If you haven’t cultivated the habits, the best apps can’t help you. All the tools and methods can muddy your flow, leaving you no better off than before you started using them.
Those apps and planners won’t help you unless they’re part of a system that works for you. If they help you take action, that’s great! If not, then remove the distractions.
There’s no silver bullet in any tool, but it’s your approach. Your approach, your system, is simply a collection of behaviors repeated consistently. There may be tools to support your system.
Before using any apps or tools, take care of yourself first. Get yourself organized. Once you get yourself in order, you can make the most of any app, any tool available.
A Scientific Approach for Your Productivity System
Building systems that help your approach will further advance you towards your goals. Maybe you’ve tried scheduling your days but you’ve found that you just can’t stick to your schedule.
This means you need a better system. You need to adjust your system or figure out a better entry point to productivity. One that minimizes any distractions.
This is where a scientific approach with testing comes in. Meaning testing all kinds of variables. Test anything you can change, from the activity that you prepare with, to the availability of food and drink, to the foot traffic in the surrounding area, for peak productivity.
Take sleep for example. A key factor in your productivity system is the amount and the quality of sleep you receive. A study funded by the CDC estimated that companies lose $136 billion a year due to sleep deprivation.
One of our team members had trouble with sleep quality and he knew its effects very well from his own experience.
He figured he wasn’t entering into the deepest sleep cycles with rapid eye movement, or REM, sleep. You may know that this cycle is the sleep that helps to improve focus and health. So, he set out to create a system that would give him better sleep.
The first step he took to improve his system was discovering why he was experiencing certain things–dry mouth and remembering dreams–when he awoke. He saw his doctor and talked to others about their sleep quality.
He learned of a few potential solutions to test, as he found that others used remedies such as running a humidifier in their room, drinking water right before sleeping, and using a continuous positive airway pressure machine, or a sleep apnea machine.
This experiment took the course of a few weeks and involved testing variations of a few variables. For example, he tested the amount of drinking water that would keep him sufficiently hydrated without interrupting his sleep for a trip to the bathroom.
He started by conducting research on various methods to improve his system. He used the insight from others’ experiences to refine his system, creating the conditions that best suited his needs.
Drinking a cup of water before sleeping helped to some extent, but after a few days, he found that he was still waking up with dry mouth. He increased his water consumption in increments, testing each amount for a few days. Eventually, he found that 15 ounces was ideal.
The process is like cooking. When you’re learning, it helps to consult multiple resources whether it be family, cookbooks, recipes, cooking classes, etc. Once you acquire all the knowledge of the spices and the foods that work well together, you can create your own style, your own flavor.
It may take some time to find the optimal solution. Everybody is different, so what works for someone else may not work for you.
However, if you take the time to solve the problem properly, you may literally change your life for the better. Rather than only dealing with the symptoms, you’ll address the root of the problem to find the true solution.
The Framework to Refine Your Own Productivity System
Let’s take a look at a framework to approach the optimization process. As with any task or activity, it’s easier to break it down into segments.
It’s like building a house. You can break down the various aspects of the project, including the foundation, walls, electricity, plumbing, and roofing.
Of course, it makes sense to build certain things before others. You can’t add the roof without walls and the walls require the completion of the foundation.
Even before you examine your activity, a great place to start is changing your mindset. This in itself is a separate article for another time, but changing your mindset will have the biggest effect. It leads into enhancing and refining your system, and makes it that much easier to do so.
Break down your activity and review each segment with excruciating detail. Cut out anything that doesn’t work. If anything distracts you, find a way to eliminate the distraction.
Dig deep into the variables you can test to optimize each stage of your activity.
Here’s the framework:
The entry point into productivity should be as accessible as possible. Generally, the major pain point doesn’t come from the action of your activity but on starting. A big part of the battle is just showing up.
That’s why it’s important to build a system that focuses on starting your activity. Reduce the friction to starting and thus the barrier that stands between you and productivity.
Again, adjusting your mindset will have the biggest impact. We’ve all heard the saying, “Mind over matter.” Changing your mentality will provide an inward change that is much deeper than anything outward, cosmetic.
One way is to focus on the benefits of what you’ll accomplish and/or the consequences of what you fail to accomplish. Writing down your goals or your fears, even everyday, and the steps you’ll take for the day can help you keep your vision.
You can use external triggers to remind yourself of your vision. Set an alarm that displays your vision or your goal on your phone. You could try an audible reminder so you can’t just swipe away a reminder on your phone without looking at it.
Another way is to surround yourself with people or content that encourage you. On the people side, these are ones striving towards similar goals or have gone through a similar process, and provide accountability.
The content may come from articles or videos about people accomplishing things that you find awesome. Even the types of content, the topic, and how you access the content can be tested. Ultimately, you’re influenced by your surroundings and the material you consume.
From a macro level with an overview of a certain time period, such as the day or the week, many people like to schedule out this time frame. For those who don’t like the restriction of a schedule or prefer more flexibility, writing down your tasks for the day is the way to go.
You can use the OAKFLOW daily planning worksheet, which will be available in the future. It uses the principle of the Top 3, also known as the Rule of 3 or 3 Most Important Tasks (MITs). These are the tasks that deem the schedule successful when completed. Finishing the other tasks listed is an added bonus.
On the micro level, there are external triggers you can create that are more action-based. These may require a little bit of planning but the key is to create triggers or devices that automate and initiate your productivity.
Grouping triggers with other activities or tasks that you routinely perform can build new habits. For example, you might pack your gym bag in the evening and place it next to your shoes or in front of the door. This will ensure that you’ll grab it as you head out.
Or if you want to read a book and watch less TV or YouTube, stand the book you want to read in front of the TV or your computer monitor, or on your laptop. That way you’ll actually have to grab the book if you’re tempted by a screen.
The key to these triggers is that they make it as easy as possible to start your activity. They move you to take action.
Staying the Course
Once you’re in the flow of your activity, it’s easier to keep a head of steam. Inertia is the scientific principle that says it’s easier for things at rest to remain at rest and it’s easier for things in motion to stay in motion.
To help yourself stay in the flow, look at the environmental factors. Do you prefer the peace and quiet in your home office or in the corner of the library? Or do you prefer some foot traffic with some background noise?
There are not only environmental factors but also what you work on and how you work. Your engagement in your activity and how you work can affect your continued productivity.
Sometimes busyness can be mistaken for productivity. Just because you’re busy doesn’t mean you’re productive.
In school, your teacher might have left busy work for the substitute teacher to assign to the students in class. The objective was just to keep the class working when the teacher was gone but nothing meaningful actually got accomplished.
The OAKFLOW goal planning worksheet helps prioritize your tasks. The OAKFLOW team has developed a customized version of an agile scrum board.
If you’re striving towards a goal, these tools help you keep sight of what you’re working towards. They ensure you’re actually making progress. You don’t want to find yourself running in place. Understand why you’re working on specific tasks.
Then, consider how you work through your activity. You may be the type that powers through whole three or four hour sessions as long as you have the right surroundings.
If you need breaks, there are several methods out there, like the Pomodoro technique. This technique alternates between a session of activity for 20 minutes and a five-minute break.
Break down your activity session to yield the most productive results. Make sure your environment and your work steam are conducive to keeping your productivity flow.
Observations & Planning
Finishing is just as important, if not more important as some would say, as starting. Here’s where you begin to plan for the next session.
After your activity, note what worked and what you could improve on. These are the lessons learned and daily wins.
After a game, high-performing athletes review the game tape to analyze their performance. They evaluate their technique and how they responded to certain situations in order to gain insight for future performances.
In your situation, were there any environmental factors that affected your productivity flow? Did any elements change at certain periods in your activity?
Did the noise increase in your surroundings after the first hour and how did it affect you? Did the sun create a distracting glare at a specific time?
As you evaluate your activity, assess your overall productivity for the day. The OAKFLOW daily worksheet provides you with a section to rate yourself. It’s another tool to help you review your day.
You’ll have different criteria than others. You might give yourself high marks for completing your top three tasks. Or you might rate lower if you completed your top three tasks but watched YouTube for six hours.
If you spent the day resting, that might be okay. Just because you rested doesn’t mean you weren’t productive. It’s like taking a vacation to recoup. Sometimes we need a break but don’t let the break become your boss.
Assessing your productivity helps you think about the variables you can test. Test all kinds of variables from your pre-activity routine that you prepare with, to the availability of food and drink so you don’t have to fight prolonged interruptions, to the foot traffic in the surrounding area.
Before one of our team members found his favorite work spot, he marked out a couple options on Google Maps. However, sometimes he felt that those locations weren’t quite suitable for his needs at certain moments.
On a sunny day, he discovered his favorite spot was in the front passenger seat of his car, parked in his driveway facing the street with the windows down.
He didn’t have to go far from the house. He could enjoy the outside elements and there was enough traffic in his environment where it wasn’t distracting but was lively enough to match his preference. He found his favorite spot by testing various locations until all of his boxes were checked.
After performance periods, whether it be a single game or a month of business, people may spend more than an hour, maybe a few just on gathering data, to review performance. You probably don’t need to spend that much time analyzing your activity as long as you identify what you can test or how you can improve.
Building Towards Success
The way to become productive is to build yourself a system that brings you into and keeps you in a flow of productivity. You can achieve this by creating triggers that help you cultivate habits.
Take an experimental approach of discovery and assess how you can improve your system. Even record your evaluation of your productivity.
Over time, you can optimize the variables for your activity to produce the best results. In the long run, rating your productivity for each day can help you record progress.
Tracking your productivity rating will provide you with an indicator on whether you should continue testing. You’ll refine a system that’s conducive to accomplishment.
A well-crafted system will cause you to become consistent in a way that it’ll feel like your activity is automatic like a well-oiled machine. This will set yourself up for success.
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