This is a guest post from ProfHacker author Natalie Houston, an associate professor of English at the University of Houston. Natalie also blogs at her site, nmhouston.com and tweets @nmhouston.
The very term “productivity system” makes me happy — I like to think systematically in order to design solutions to problems and I enjoy learning about and creating new systems for doing things. That tendency towards systemic, big picture thinking is both a strength of mine and a potential weakness, since I know that I can potentially get caught up in the beauty of a new system and lose sight of its intended impact. I’ve learned that keeping a few basic rules in place helps me balance that interest in improving my systems with my desire to actually do the work that productivity systems are supposed to assist. I’ve shared these rules with other people from time to time and they’ve found them helpful, so perhaps you’ll find one or more of them useful as well.
Rule #1: Separate deciding from doing.
Over the course of a week, I typically work on several different kinds of projects, with different timelines and different activities. In order for me to make sure that I’m on track for deadlines and balancing my responsibilities appropriately, I need to devote some clear-headed thought to planning my schedule and my task list for each day. If I have two hours of writing time scheduled in the morning, then I don’t want to waste any of it figuring out which writing project to work on. The mindset I bring to planning and scheduling is really different than the energy I bring to writing and for me it’s best to match them to the right task.
What that means in practice is that I spend some time on the weekend planning for the week ahead, figuring out what my priorities need to be and trying to anticipate the obstacles I might encounter. Then each morning I write my priorities for the day on an index card. I maintain my task lists in a digital system (I’m currently using Gina Trapani’s ToDo.txt) but I’ve found that the act of writing an index card each morning helps me focus on the larger priorities and keeps me honest about how many things I can fit into the day.
Rule #2: Make it easier on my future self.
My day’s productivity really begins the night before, when I pack my lunch and organize my bookbag if I’ll be going to campus the next day. Whether I’ll be at home or on campus, I also choose and lay out my clothes and workout gear for the next day. Finally, I’ll set up the coffee pot so that starting the coffee is just a one-button task in the morning. Sure, sometimes if I’m tired in the evening, the last thing I want to do is set out clothes and pack a lunch. But when I skip my evening routine, I regret it the next day. What takes me five minutes to decide in the evening can easily take me 15 minutes in the early morning when I’m more likely to puzzle over which sweater to wear. Plus, gathering all my items for the next day can help me avoid arriving at yoga class missing a crucial item in my bag.
Making it easier on my future self also means taking a minute at the end of each work session, whether I’m writing, reading, or coding, to jot down a few notes about what I did and where I want to go next. Those notes to myself are especially helpful during the semester, when several days may go by before I get back to a particular project. My memory only goes so far. Notes are much better.
Rule #3: Use a timer.
A timer is my favorite productivity tool, bar none. I mostly use a timer that allows you to choose any combination of chime, vibration, and flashing light when the countdown timer finishes. I startle easily, so I prefer the buzz of the vibration setting to the alarm chime.
Using the timer helps me start tasks that I would otherwise put off; it helps me stay focused by taking breaks at the right times during long work days; and helps me to balance effort across different projects. Using a timer lets me devote my entire energy and focus on the task at hand — whether that’s writing or watching part of a movie for a break — because I don’t have to keep thinking about whether I’m doing what I should be doing. I decided how long I’ll be doing activity X, and when the timer goes off, then I’ll make a conscious choice about doing something else or continuing that activity.
I mostly use the timer in countdown mode, but sometimes I use the stopwatch mode to time how long it takes me to do a certain task, so that I can better plan my day. (Do you know how long it takes you to shower, dress, and groom yourself in the morning? how long it takes to wash and chop vegetables for salad? how long your commute really takes?) Periodically, I’ll track my time spent on various activities for a few days, using a timer plus a notebook or a tool like Toggl. This can help me better understand how I’m actually spending my time, as opposed to how I’ve planned to spend it.
Rule #4: Find tools you like to use, and use them.
There are a zillion cool tools out there. Most of them are right for someone — but not for everyone. You need to find the tools that suit you — your aesthetic, your lifestyle, your kinesthetic senses, your budget, and your preferred modes of organizing information, time, and space — and stick with them. Figure out which tools really matter to you, and which ones don’t. For instance, I’m very particular about which pens I prefer to write with, but I don’t care which brand of white paper I use in my printer.
Most of my crucial productivity tools right now are pretty basic: my timer, bold point Uniball pens, a BlacknRed hardbound notebook, and ruled index cards. The one item that I now consider crucial that isn’t basic is a Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500 sheetfed scanner. Yes, it’s expensive enough that I delayed buying it for a long time. But it has transformed my workspace and household management systems into something a lot closer to the paperless nirvana I sometimes dream of. Which brings me to the final rule:
Rule #5: Don’t hold on to every piece of paper.
You can do that for a few years, through graduate school, or maybe up until tenure. But eventually the paper will overwhelm your available space. Before simply archiving everything, consider carefully whether the information on the paper is easily obtained elsewhere, how likely it is that you will actually want or need to use it again, and whether you can store it in a digital form. You probably don’t want or need to scan and digitally archive everything either, but at least PDFs aren’t susceptible to mildew, insects, flood, or fire damage. Nor do they weigh anything to move across country.
I’m a human being, not a robot, so of course I’m not perfect in my implementation of these five rules; sometimes I play around with new apps when I should just stick to the index cards, and there’s more paper in my house than I would like. That’s precisely why I developed these rules in order to address my personal tendencies, and they’ve helped me get better at doing the things I want and need to do.
Do you have any productivity rules or technologies that help ensure that you maximize your time? Have any comments or additions to the rules listed above? Let us know in the comments below!
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