April 4, 2020

A Complete Guide to Productivity

People used to say that the internet was made of cat gifs. Nowadays, it seems like the internet is made of productivity articles.

I’m not knocking that trend; I’m all about productivity. But, the internet makes it incredibly easy for you to disappear down any rabbit hole of your choosing. Again, I’m all for that. But, if your niche is productivity and getting things done, then reading an endless stream of productivity guides is, well, counter-productive.

I get it. If you’re reading about productivity, you can tell yourself it’s a valuable use of your time. But, this trend for fetishising productivity-themed content has led to the rise of what I call productivity porn. You know the kind of thing I mean; endless articles about micro-hacks, software platform recommendations, and other minutiae. I have a hunch that people consume productivity porn for the same reason they look at food porn; as a substitute for the real thing. It’s a way of procrastinating in a manner that allows you to avoid feeling guilty. 

Think about it. If you have absorbed a healthy dose of productivity articles and you are implementing their advice, your productivity should be off the charts. That means you shouldn’t need to keep on reading more of them. You should be getting stuff done. If you’re a sucker for a productivity article, but your output still isn’t where you want it to be, maybe you’re too focused on reading instead of execution.

I want to change that habit for you. That way, you can go off and do whatever it is you want to get done, effectively and efficiently, and achieve something you’re proud of. So, here is a complete short(ish) guide to personal productivity. 

In this productivity guide, I’m not going to give you an endless list of specific tactics or tech recommendations, because they don’t matter. What works for one person doesn’t work for someone else. There is no single best method. You have to figure out the best tools to suit your personality, type of work, and your workflow. Instead, I’m going to zoom out and give you a framework to build your own system.

The fundamentals of productivity

When it comes to getting things done, the fundamental guiding principles of productivity are what matters, so that’s what this productivity guide will focus on. Once you know them, you can hang any system you want onto the framework they provide. 

The fundamentals of being productive and achieving your goals are:

  1. Having a clear understanding of what you want to achieve 
  2. Having an action plan
  3. Having a realistic idea of the time and resources required to execute your plan
  4. Knowing how to manage your time
  5. Knowing how to prioritise your tasks (closely related to point four)
  6. Having a system for monitoring and reviewing progress to keep you on track
  7. Having the discipline to show up and do the work (this is the most crucial point after point one)
  8. Knowing when you’re done (see point one)

You can adapt the specifics to suit your needs, but the fundamentals don’t change. Most people who fail to achieve their goals, do so because they have not clearly figured out one or more of these factors. Take another look at that list. Is there anything that jumps out at you as a weak link for you? If so, that’s where you should focus to improve your results.

So, that’s the short, cheat-sheet version of a productivity guide. But I know you didn’t come here for that. You want the extended version. Ready? Let’s go.

Steps one & two: Know where you’re going and how to get there

For success in any project, you have to start with the big picture. First, define your goal. If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never get there.

Once you know where you want to end up, you need to know how to get there. That means creating an action plan listing everything you need to do to get from where you are now to where you want to be. Make sure your goals are SMART; the more specific you are with your goals, the easier it is to aim for them with precision. And nothing creates impetus like a deadline, so make sure you assign a target date to whatever it is you want to achieve.

Once you have defined your SMART goal, use it as a starting point and write down everything you need to do, step-by-step, to achieve it. Identify the key stages of your project first, then get granular and break them down into specific tasks. This process often works best if you start at the end and work backwards to reverse-engineer the outcome. That way, you get the benefit of hindsight without having to invent a time machine.

Say you want to make an online course which you can sell as a product. You could go ahead and focus on making the course first, and worry about where that course will be hosted and who will buy it later. Approach the project in this way, and you are likely to run into problems down the line that create extra work or undermine its potential for success.

If instead, you start at the end; with the intended audience for the course, and work backwards, you will be able to foresee and solve a lot of problems at the planning stage. This will allow you to work more efficiently and reach your goal sooner.

Let me explain. If you start by identifying your audience and a need that they have, you can design a course that meets this need. That way, you will know that there is an existing demand for your product, so it is likely to sell. If you know your audience, you can determine which learning platforms they use and pick the best one for your purpose. 

By knowing the platform specifications before you build your product, you can design it to meet their criteria. This will help you identify what resources and workflow you need to deliver your product in the right format, creating further efficiencies in your process. You can also assess the competition, see what works well and where the gaps in the market are. That way, you avoid the problem of creating a product that your preferred training platform won’t accept or is unlikely to succeed. This will save you from having to reiterate your course to meet their specification or differentiate it from the competition. 

Once you have figured all this stuff out, you can draw up a clear goal and an action plan, then go and build your product. 

Once you have worked backwards from your goal to the beginning of your project, you should have everything mapped out step-by-step and know what you need to do to deliver it. Armed with this foresight, you can avoid a lot of issues you wouldn’t have otherwise seen. This will help you work efficiently and give yourself the best chance of success.

Step three: Be resourceful

When you create your plan, don’t just write down what you need to do; factor in the time and resources required to deliver each step. This will make your plan actionable. Over-estimate how long things take so you can build some slack into your system. This takes the pressure off you. It reduces your chances of falling behind schedule, getting frustrated and giving up, or getting sloppy and cutting corners to stay on pace. Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.

Productivity - Gantt Chart
Image by Author

At the end of this planning process, you should have a list of tasks to execute and the order you need to execute them in. Turning this into a Gantt chart can be beneficial for all but the simplest of projects. 

It can be helpful to split the project into defined stages. Depending on the structure of the project in question, these stages may be obvious, or you may have to engineer them in somehow. Having milestones along the way is important; they help you focus and make it easy to see your progress, which is good for motivation and momentum. They also serve as opportunities to review your progress so you can proactively get yourself back on track if you begin to stray off-piste.

Step four: Guard your time

Put a timeframe on every stage of your project plan and put the tasks and milestones in your Outlook, iCalendar, printed diary, or whatever calendar system you use. This will help you commit to doing the right actions at the right time and keep you from getting distracted by doing something less important instead. Studies have shown that you’re more likely to achieve a goal when you write down what needs to happen and when.

When planning how to use your time effectively, prioritise the big tasks first. You should assign continuous blocks of time to complete the big jobs that require uninterrupted focus, then fit the smaller tasks in around them. If you concentrate on the small stuff first, the big, important things may never happen. If a big job seems daunting and you find yourself avoiding it, break it down into smaller sub-tasks that are easier to tackle.

Get granular

When you need to get more granular (i.e. planning your actions for each day, or breaking project stages down into a series of sub-tasks), use a to-do list. In fact, go one better and use the bullet journal (aka “BuJo”) system. It’s akin to magic. 

If you google “bullet journal”, you will find lots of pretty pictures where people have turned their notebooks into art projects. It looks cool, but it’s time-consuming, and it’s not productive, so I don’t suggest that you do that. The original bullet system Ryder Carroll came up with is super-minimal and quick to execute. That’s what you want to use. Its power lies in its flexibility, and you can adapt it to any kind of work or workflow. It beats the pants off a vanilla to-do list. 

Step five: Prioritise and execute

The most straightforward, useful framework I have found for task prioritisation is the Eisenhower matrix. Plot your tasks on it, then use it to plan where your focus should be, what you need to work on, and how you need to act on it. You can do this on paper, on a whiteboard, in your head, or with some software. Don’t get fancy. 

Productivity - Eisenhower Matrix
Image by Author

Many of the delegation tasks will be low-level administrative work. If you’re a solopreneur and don’t have anyone to delegate them to, you have three choices for dealing with items in that quadrant; 

  • suck it up and do them yourself, 
  • find someone you can outsource them to, 
  • find a way to automate them.

Use the Eisenhower matrix weekly to review pending project tasks then assign them to one of its four quadrants. It’s also a great tool to use on days where you are lacking focus. Just pick something from the top-left quadrant and get stuck in.

Stay focused

Don’t multi-task. It causes you to spend your time switching back and forth between tasks, which dilutes your attention and is less efficient than dealing with them one-by-one. Focus on one task at a time and batch process instead. Block time out for repetitive or closely-related tasks like processing email or doing admin, then smash through them all in one go. Listening to music can help relieve the boredom of tedious tasks and prevent fatigue setting in. When doing tasks that involve processing language, like reading or writing, stick to instrumental music, so there are no words to distract you. 

When doing other low-cognition tasks, try listening to podcasts or audiobooks to stimulate your mind while you work. You can even listen to some productivity-related ones if you’re missing the articles you’re no longer reading because you read this one.

Avoid getting stuck in the weeds

The number one reason people don’t complete projects is that they give up along the way. The number two reason (and the main reason projects are delivered late) is because they fixate on trivial details in a quest for perfection. This is just another form of procrastination that only serves to delay progress. 

In most cases, good enough is good enough, and momentum is more important than perfection when it comes to keeping projects (and your motivation levels) on track. The mantra you need to repeat to yourself until you’re saying it in your sleep is this: “Done is better than perfect.” You can always go back and refine some of the particulars later. 

Sculptors don’t carve details like an eye or a nose in one go before working on the rest of the piece. They carve out the rough shape for the whole sculpture first, then go back and progressively refine the details in multiple passes. 

Same goes for writers. Authors tend to write rough first drafts of books. Like, really rough. Their number one goal is to get to the end. Once they get there, they can go back and refine the text as a separate process. If an author tried to edit a book as they were writing it, they would never finish it. 

Remember; done is better than perfect. Nobody wants a perfectly executed half project. Prioritise momentum over perfection for most of the project cycle. Work on the big picture first, then refine the details later.

Use the Pareto principle

Closely related to the point above, the Pareto principle is a potent productivity tool. For the uninitiated, the Pareto principle states that 80% of results in a system come from 20% of its inputs. Use this to identify the critical 20% of a project that delivers 80% of the results and focus your efforts there first. Once you start seeing results, go back and work on the other 80%. 

At first glance, it might seem like you’re cutting corners and sacrificing on quality by ignoring 80% of the work, but you’re not. You’re prioritising what matters in a way that leaves you enough time to go back and refine what you executed later and ultimately turn in quality work. Don’t get fancy; stick to the fundamental 20%, implement it as well as possible, then focus on the remaining 80%. This is how you make sure you deliver a project. Most businesses are successful not because they get all the peripheral nice to have stuff right, but because they have the fundamental 20% down rock solid.

Step six: Monitor as you go

Once you have started executing on your action plan, pay attention to the milestones you built in along the way. These will give you regular opportunities to review your work and check your progress so that you know your efforts are being directed to the right places. This will help you to quickly correct course if you notice that you are drifting from your plan. 

If you are working on a project that someone else has commissioned you to do, you should check you’re going in the right direction before you do too much work on it. In which case, use the 30/60/90 feedback framework. Here’s how it works:

30% of the way through the project, get people to sense-check its scope and the direction it is taking. Don’t worry too much about the details at this stage. You are looking to confirm or amend the concept at a broad level. If the goalposts need to move, this is the time to move them; not when you’re almost done.

60% of the way through the project, you should have something akin to a rough working draft of the final deliverables. This is where you start nailing down the details and tightening everything up. It is fine to add new features or cut some elements now the project has taken shape, but the concept should not be changing at this point. You need to come away from this round of feedback with enough information to complete the job. Keep asking questions until you have enough clarity to finish the project, pending confirmation of a few details.

90% of the way through, you should have everything almost set. This batch of feedback is about making final tweaks to specific details so that you end up with a polished final result. There should be no surprises or major reworking of anything at this stage. This is really about refinement and sign-off of the project from stakeholders.

Think of this review framework as an early warning system for project work. It helps you focus on the big picture first, so you know the project is taking shape in the right way. Then it gets increasingly granular as the project progresses, so there should be no nasty surprises at the end. 

It manages people’s expectations and involves them in the process so you can get reassurance on the right things at the right time. It also allows you to foresee problems early so you can avoid them. That way, you can work efficiently, and look super-competent when you turn in work that meets people’s expectations and gets signed off without any fuss.

The 30/60/90 model can also be used as a framework for sense-checking self-initiated projects. Identify the appropriate milestones for each of the three review stages and asses where you’re at with the project accordingly. Adjust your project plan based on the insight you get from your review sessions, then use the Eisenhower matrix to work out where to focus your efforts so you can move forward.

Step seven: Develop good habits

That’s an overview of the critical stuff to consider when planning a project along with some useful frameworks for prioritising actions, managing your time and reviewing your progress. But a plan doesn’t mean much if you don’t execute it. Thomas Edison famously said, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” You can have the best business idea or strategy in the world, but you have to act on it to make it happen. The most crucial aspect of productivity is showing up and doing the work. I can’t stress this enough. This is where you win or lose the productivity game. 

If you want to reliably execute your action plan, you need to develop effective habits and a mindset for consistently showing up and doing the work. While those traits have to come from within yourself, the frameworks and approaches I have outlined in this article go a long way to supporting and maintaining a productive work ethic.

We all have days where we don’t feel like getting stuck in. But, if we set our environment and system up correctly, we can make it easier to get started. By having lots of easily accessible, visible cues such as markers on a Gantt chart, tasks in the top-left quadrant of the Eisenhower matrix, time carved out in your calendar and items in your BuJo waiting to be crossed off, you should know exactly what you need to be working on at any given time. This framework and these cues make it easier for you to consistently show up and get on with it. 

For maximum effectiveness, work out which times of day you perform best at different kinds of tasks, then arrange your schedule so that you are working on the appropriate things at the right times. For many people, that means doing creative or deep work in the morning and lower cognitive level tasks like admin or email in the afternoon. For some people, being a night owl works best. There is no set system. What matters is figuring out what works for you and leveraging it for all its worth.

Marking things off your Gantt chart and crossing them off in your BuJo will help you to keep a visible real-time record of the progress you have made on your project. Pay attention to them during your review sessions; they should help to keep you motivated and focused on the tasks ahead. 

If you want to know more about developing effective habits (or eradicating counter-productive ones), I highly recommend James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits. Based on established science without getting bogged down in detail, it contains lots of actionable, practical advice for cultivating positive behaviours and stick-to-it-ness. 

Wrapping up

I have studied productivity for years. I’ve read hundreds of articles, dozens of books, and tried all kinds of systems and approaches. In my experience, the principles in this productivity guide are what really matter when it comes to consistently shipping quality work on time. 

I haven’t recommended specific micro-hacks or software platforms like many other productivity guides do because, ultimately, they are not what matters. What’s important is the fundamental principles and framework outlined here. Productivity is a skill, supported by a process. Use whatever tools you like and build whatever system, digital or analogue, that works for you, then use that. 

Be deliberate in your choices and honestly assess the effectiveness of each part of your process. Don’t do something a certain way just because you think you should. Do what actually works for you. Make changes as necessary but don’t get caught up in overthinking the details. The best system is whichever one allows you to act with the least friction. Now stop reading, go and execute, and make something amazing that you are proud of.