Saturday, January 12, 2013

My Productivity System

Last month I shared with you some pages from my updated DIY planner and I promised that I would later share with you a post on my productivity system.  Well, this is later, and since it's the new year and you might be looking for ways to accomplish your goals and resolutions, here it is!

My productivity system is based on both Leo Babauta's Zen-to-Done (ZTD) system and Jordan McGilvray's Middle Way Method.  If you want to get a feel for where I'm coming from, I highly recommend you check out both of those posts, but my productivity system has (I think) its own distinctly personal flavour as well.  I firmly believe that, instead of just following someone else's system, you should take the time to develop your own system.  I hope that by sharing my system with you, I will give you some ideas and inspiration for your own life.

My DIY planner.

My productivity system can be broken down into three main areas: goals, daily planning, and reviews.  I'll discuss each of these in turn:

Once a year, I write down all of the things I want to do, small and large - from publishing my novel to exercising more to cleaning my desk to buying ink for my fountain pen.  I use my current to-do lists, journal entries, and morning pages to help me create this Giant To-Do List of Doom.  Once it's completed, I go through it with a set of highlighters and organize all of the points into categories that make sense to me.  Last year, I had nine categories; this year, I have only six - Writing, Social/Marketing, Productivity/Empowerment, Health/Fitness, Creativity, and Spirituality.  These are highly personal categories that make sense to me at this time of my life.  Using these categories serves to both organize all of my tasks (instead of one huge, intimidating to-do list, now I have several smaller, more manageable and less scary to-do lists), and identify the most important areas of my life that I want to set goals in.

The next step is to write my mission and vision statements.  My mission statement is more general, while my vision statement is a more specific statement (in the present tense) of what I want my life to look like in the next five years or so.  These statements tie together all of my goals, reminding me that everything is interconnected, and can also be used as affirmations.

Finally, I set my goals.  I set 5-year goals, yearly goals, quarterly goals, and monthly goals.  This may seem a bit excessive, but for me, my 5-year and yearly goals can feel very intimidating.  Breaking things down into quarterly and monthly goals makes my goals feel much more doable and possible.  Like my vision statement, I write my 5-year and yearly goals in the present tense, as though they have already happened.  I set my monthly and quarterly goals at the end of every month and quarter, and I make changes to all of my goals throughout the year if they need it.  I have thought a lot about this process, and before you set any goals, I would highly recommend that you read this article about living with no goals to decide if goals really are right for you.  I agree with most of the article, but after some reflection, I decided that working with goals was right for me.  If you do use goals, recognize that they're a process, not a destination.

Daily Planning
While goals are important, they are not essential, and the main part of my productivity system is my system of daily planning.  This is where I wanted to keep things really simple so I could focus more on actually doing things rather than on the planning itself.

At the end of every week, I select 4 to 6 Big Rocks for the week.  These are usually based on my monthly goals, and they are the main tasks that I want to accomplish that week.  For example, this week, one of my Big Rocks was to write this blog post (which is connected to my larger goal of clarifying my personal productivity system).  I also select a habit on which to focus for the week and I choose my Next Actions of the week (tasks I can work on if I have some extra time or if I get my Big Rocks done).  All of this gets written down in my Weekly Planning pages (see my blog post on my DIY planner for more details on these pages).

With all of this done, at the beginning of every day all I need to do is select my most important tasks of the day (no more than 4, and they are usually directly related to my Big Rocks of the week), and schedule them in at a specific time.  I need to commit to doing things at a specific time or else I know that I'll probably just procrastinate and end up not getting anything done.

Finally, reviews are essential for maintaining my focus and motivation.  I have four levels of reviews: weekly, monthly, quarterly, and yearly. During my weekly reviews, I back up files, clean out my inboxes, print pages for my planner, review my goals, check completed items off my to-do lists (something that always feels good!), and select my Big Rocks for the upcoming week.  In my monthly and quarterly reviews, I read my old morning pages, review what I accomplished in the past month or quarter, and set my goals for the upcoming month or quarter.  I also use this time to deal with any areas of built-up clutter in the house.  Finally, in my yearly review, I read over old journals, finish off old projects, make a list of accomplishments of the year, and set my goals for the next year.

Although my system may sound complicated, it is actually very simple in practice and makes a lot of sense for me, my lifestyle, and the way I work.  I started out using the Middle Way Method, switched to ZTD, and then gradually began tweaking things to make a unique system that worked for me.  It took a few months to get things the way I wanted them, and to establish the necessary habits and routines in my life.  My system is still a work in progress, and I'm sure it will continue to evolve as my needs and situation in life change.

Now that I have my system in place, I only need to take a few minutes every morning to plan my day.  Because I have all of my goals set up and written down, I don't need to spend time during the day thinking or worrying about these, and I can trust that what I am working on today has some connection to the larger goals in my life.

Do you use a productivity system of some kind?


  1. My own productivity system typically amounted to no more than handwritten to-do lists, sometimes modified a few times during the day. Lots of ad hoc categorization. But, I worked in a tiny company buffeted by challenges that would knock the stuffing out of a rigorous organizational scheme.

    I've read good things about those organizational systems/planners, and, if not mistaken, I think some employers require them. Jack/OH

    1. It would probably really annoy me if I was required to use a particular system by an employer, because I love having the flexibility to evolve and adapt my system to my personal needs. Luckily, that's not a problem I'm likely to have any time soon!

      This is probably the most in-depth system I've used yet. In the past, I've mostly just used variations on the basic to-do list. I'm sure this one will change as well as my life changes in the future.

    2. Heather, I wish I had a reference for my belief that some employers require an organizational system.

      BTW-I actually did and still do have four themes around which I organize my to-do lists. The themes are embarrassingly high-minded and idiosyncratic, but they were and still are (although I almost never use themes as explicit headings) a good way of maintaining focus. I'd forgotten all about those organizing themes.

    3. Thank you for taking the time to write this. I love hearing of other's systems so that I can be thoughtful about my own.

      I am curious about your planner -- and would love to know what you use, if you don't mind sharing.

    4. Angie, I'm using a "DIY planner" that I've created myself using templates available from the website I use the Classic/A5 size, and the templates I use are Monthly Planning, Weekly Planning (the layout that displays the days vertically, hour by hour), and Actions (for to-do lists). I've written more about my planner in this post:

      Thank you for your interest!

  2. This has lit a bright light bulb in my brain. Thank you so much for sharing!


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