Our tasks and workflows are infinitely diverse, so no system can claim universal application. We can hack these systems by thinking abstractly on how they affect our habits and give us control over our work. My own system for maintaining and tracking my productivity is a permanent work in progress and that is OK. Our lives and academic work are constantly in flux, so it is important to be able to adapt methods to core principles. This post is a guide to my own process of hacking and recombining a number of productivity systems including The Now Habit, Getting Things Done, and 43folders.com.

The Now Habit is a good place to start because it is a guide to overcoming procrastination. The book does a great job of avoiding a ‘just do it’ tone and instead focuses on the reasons for why we procrastinate. It reveals that “Procrastination is a mechanism for coping with the anxiety associated with starting or completing any task or decision”. The book’s author, psychologist Niel Fiore, advocates guilt-free play and a systematic approach to work to combat the procrastination that results from things like anxiety, perfectionism, or indecisiveness. One of Fiore’s helpful tools is the reverse calendar: a calendar that starts with the deadline and moves backwards step by step to your first action item, fighting your indecision and anxiety with a set of manageable tasks. This has helped me avoid the dread of sitting down on any given day to ‘write my 25 page term paper’ and instead I look at my reverse calendar and realize that all I have to do is write a number of topic sentences and annotate a few book chapters that day.

I have to be honest about my assessment of Getting Things Done; it has not been as much a revelation as some of his biggest fans might suggest, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be for you. While I have not fully embraced productivity guru David Allen’s system, I did pick up a few crucial techniques that help me through my day. Allen describes a system for processing the nature, meaning, and requirements of tasks and then setting up a system of ‘buckets’ for collecting this information. The evolution of my own system of buckets has given me confidence that nothing important slips past my nets to bite me later.

One of Allen’s fans is quirky ‘Indie writer’ Merlin Mann, whose Inbox Zero has been a revelation for my workflow. In the linked video, Mann gives a talk to Google employees on how to bring the beast that has become your email inbox under control. You may already have your own system for dealing with email, but I highly recommend Mann’s talk as it provides both the abstract principles and specific techniques that will allow you to adapt to changes in technology and your life. A system like Inbox Zero can do wonders for reclaiming your inbox and toning down its ability to distract. Mann’s talk at Webstock about being ‘Scared Shitless’ got a lot of buzz and is worth checking out for everyone who has experienced anxiety, imposter syndrome, and stress.

Finally, your system has to come together on something, be it paper, digital, or whiteboard. I use a pages template that allows me to have a daily task list, a time tracking column to keep track of the quality work time I am spending, and a weekly hours tracker on Sundays. I highlight tasks green when they are complete and the time tracking really helps me carve out time for guilt-free play when I have made good progress. Your own document should be tailored to your own needs and preferences.

Got your own productivity system? Are these models useful? Do you have your own books/articles/videos/links? Please share!

[Image by Flickr user prettytypewriters and used under Creative Commons license]


4 Responses to Productivity Systems

  1. Cool article. You engaged deeply with several books.

    My favorite quote: “Procrastination is a mechanism for coping with the anxiety associated with starting or completing any task or decision”

    I developed a productivity system called Cyborganize. It’s tech centric like Inbox Zero but comprehensive like GTD.

    One thing it does well is small-chunking decision making and execution. It does so by managing tasks in a little-known program called BrainStormSW. This allows individual “is A more important than B” decisions to be made very rapidly, which by the transitivity principle builds an outline of your entire task prioritization tree.

    Check it out: cyborganize.org.

    PS Another thing it does very well is writing, e.g. that 25 page term paper. I can’t really talk here about all the writing aids it has built in, since that would cover 2/3’s of the system. Suffice it to say that it makes writing automatic, from research to final draft.

  2. Stephanie Hilliard says:

    Thanks for the tips. I’ve bookmarked all of these sites to check out and see if they can help this grad student/full-time employee stay on top of the chaos.

  3. Terry Brock says:

    I am a big GTD devotee (see tomorrow’s post), and I have really enjoyed Merlin Mann’s most recent project, the podcast Back to Work at http://5by5.tv. Highly recommended.

  4. […] the world. I am one of them, and I know some other graduate students who find it helpful, as well. Developing a productivity strategy is one of the more important parts about graduate school: I consider my time in school to not only […]

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