I love being productive. I own several productivity books and have subscribed to many methods of doing better work quicker, smarter and easier. I have one small flaw though. My mind does not like being as productive as I do. It’s filled with squiggles, zig-zags and chaos, rather than straight lines and order.
My wife on the other hand is a naturally gifted time wizard. She organizes her life weeks in advance without much thought, is consistently productive without having a system and watches on with amusement as I forget to finish the last section of every task I start. She doesn’t spend time learning how to be more productive because she already is productive.
One thing I have discovered is that most time management and productivity guides are written by those whose brains are wired towards productivity. They are good at being productive, and want to share it with other people. That makes sense, but in almost all cases, I have found that when I put the same principles into play in my own life, they fall short because they are fighting against the natural rhythms of what makes me, me.
For some of us, chaos feels more like home than order does. Every once in a while we get a spurt of inspiration that enables us to knuckle down and fit into the system, but over time, we come back to our natural state. So how does the chaotic creative amongst us do more work that matters, in a way that is not only quicker, smarter and easier, but natural?
That is my heart behind writing this post. These series of habits aren’t a process to follow, or even a step-by-step guide to perfect productivity. They are designed to help you find your own method in the madness. I like the phrase ‘ordered chaos’. It suggests a way of working that to anyone else looks completely irrational and disorganized – a lone squiggle in a sea of straight lines – but which is actually following a creative process.
That is the key to being truly productive – finding your own method in the middle of the chaos.
Finish Before You Start
When I was working as a landscaper, we had a simple philosophy. Do as much work as quickly as possible. More work, more clients satisfied, more word of mouth. Easy wins all around. However, I learnt a valuable lesson one day when halfway through a job, we realized that we hadn’t packed any of the tools needed to finish what we had started.
If I had spent even five minutes at the start of the day thinking about what we needed to finish this important job, it would have never been an issue. Taking a ten minute time out as soon as you get into the office to organize your day, work out what is most important and plan accordingly can be a life-saver.
Keep It Simple
I am attracted to the shiniest tools. Time and time again, I fall for the trap that if I just possessed the book I heard about, or the latest app everyone has been talking about, or that software with the great reviews then I would become a time wizard, just like my wife. With differing success, I have tried Evernote, Nozbe, Things, Wunderlist, Fantastical, Remember The Milk ; and read Getting Things Done, the Four Hour Work Week, Whats Best Next, Do More Better amongst others.
I know plenty of people who swear by these solutions, but for me, they never lasted. Keep it as simple as you can. I have moved completely away from online solutions and from smartphones to keep myself organized and now stick with the simplest device I have: pen & paper. That means carrying a couple of notebooks with me wherever I go (I usually leave them in my car, or a backpack) as well a traditional diary. I write ideas in them, take notes from sermons and seminars, doodle, write up diagrams and flowcharts and find it much easier than almost any other method.
Color can be the difference between a process being really helpful and staring at an intimidating list of action items that seem impossible. It makes sense, colors invigorate us and inspire us. Experts think that something as subtle as the color of your walls can impact your mood, productivity and the quality of the work you do.
For me, it is all about the simple post-it-note. I have 4-5 categories (each different colors) for different aspects of life, and write a new post-it for each task. When I finish the task, I pick it up and put it in the trash. It’s simple, repeatable, visual and gives the satisfaction of feeling productive all in one. It’s not simply that it’s a list, it’s that in a moments glance I can see what I have to do, what I have already done and where the balance of my work needs to be.
Keep Yourself Fresh
Many of us are permanently stuck in deadline mode, hurrying and hustling ourselves to the next task and leaving little time to ease off and recharge. The things that need slowness – friendship, laughter, creative thought, loving and planning – get lost in the mad dash to keep up with the crowd.
Make sure you plan your rest. Rest is life-giving pause, the quiet in the eye of the storm that enables you to bustle and hustle your way through the rest of it. Too many times I have looked back over a week, realizing too late that I spent no time resting, or too much time resting in things that didn’t give me any energy back. Maybe you have a hectic pace of life, but try and pick one day a week where you can take care of yourself and rest. Relent, stop, recover.
I try and do this one exercise with every team I lead called A Perfect Week. It’s a simple tool that Michael Hyatt put together several years ago that I’ve added my own style to maximize its potential for creating rest and pause. You can download a simple PDF here, print and work off in your own time. There is also an downloadable excel sheet if you want to make it pretty or color-coded.
Manage Your Energy
Most productivity experts can teach you how to manage your time, cramming more hours into your day, but few talk about how to manage your energy. It doesn’t matter how much is left on the to-do list when your body isn’t feeling it, your mental head space is burnt up and you’d rather be anywhere else than here.
I daily have to manage a chronic illness that can severely impact my energy stocks. There are certain times when it is going to be better for me to work (late mornings and early afternoon) and other time when it is like walking through treacle (early mornings). Everyone’s mental energy and enthusiasm shifts up and down as the day goes on. This is true from the early risers right through to the night hawks. How do we use that to be more productive?
Whatever you love doing, whatever you look forward to doing and whatever makes you feel like you’re making significant process, do that in the periods when you have most energy. Do your best work when your energy is high. Then, when it comes to the tasks that you hate, the ones that drain you, the ones you keep delaying, do them when you are already tired.
Only Do What Matters
Harvard Business Review suggests that practically everything we do at work is unimportant. From emails to meetings, we spend so much time doing unproductive tasks that we actually get distracted from the ‘vital few’ tasks that are going to bring about success.
If you’re a salesman, the time you spend selling is going to be the biggest predictor of success. Not writing reports, organizing the office, attending meetings or responding to messages. It’s doing the one big important thing, time and time again, that is going to lead to success. That is the Pareto Principle at work.
The Pareto Principle says that in most situations roughly 80% of the effects come from only 20% of the causes. We can use the Pareto Principle to focus on the things on our task list that actually make a difference in the long run.
HBR suggests writing down your top six priorities of the day—and then crossing out the bottom five. Work on the top one for 90-minutes first thing in the morning. Every time you’re about to waste time on things like Twitter or checking email, write down what you are about to do (to stop you in your tracks).
Do What Works
No two people are going to have the exact some productivity routine. Each of us are wired differently, with different demands and responsibilities in the everyday, with different focuses, passions and schedules. In fact, it would be downright strange if we all were productive in the exact same manner.
Instead of finding someone else to copy, simply do what works for you. If you find that despite everyone looking at your method of working as if it was constructed by a madman, it works for you, continue. I mean really works though, not the kind of system that you only convince yourself works because you would rather sit with what you know then do the hard work of crafting something better. If you find yourself productive despite the chaos, continue.
Find your own method in the middle of the chaos.