Designing your Productivity (Part II)

It's time for us to get into the practicals of designing a system that helps you become more disciplined and productive.

The system will help you:

  1. develop an awareness of your tasks

  2. learn how to take the next step to achieve a task

  3. figure out the right timing for each task

Now that you know why you need to read this, let's begin. Much like attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, the first step towards getting better requires acceptance...acceptance that you're really not as good as you think you are at remembering things. The mistake a lot of people make here is thinking they can easily remember the tasks they're meant to work on.

I struggle with keeping track of my tasks and end up having to rush projects at the deadline, turning in sub-par work or in some cases completely forgetting I had work to get done.

If you've said something similar to this statement before, you're definitely guilty. We've all been here, so here's your first lesson - your brain is better suited to analysis than it is to memorisation. In plain English, your brain does a better job at thinking than it does at storing information. So it's better to have your brain do the job of thinking and outsource the job of storing information to something a notebook or a to-do list! 😆

Here's the second lesson - if you rely on your brain to keep track of tasks, you might fall prey to the salience bias. This bias makes you pay attention to what's super obvious...and what's super obvious isn't necessarily what's super important. It might be super obvious that you need to respond to your best friend's Twitter message, but that isn't necessarily super important. So how do you get your brain to focus on what's important? By being aware of your tasks, then being deliberate about the task that you focus on. That awareness is reinforced when you have somewhere outside of your head that you can record and keep track of your tasks.

The key to keeping track of your tasks is to create a system around the collection and processing of your tasks. Here's where the Getting Things Done (GTD) method by David Allen comes in. The GTD method helps you build the right habits to:

  1. Note your tasks

  2. Organise your tasks

  3. Review your tasks

  4. Get your tasks done

I've outlined the main steps because it's important that you remember them. Now let's dive in!

Note your tasks

  1. Stop leaving tasks in your head with the hope that you'll remember things when you need to work on them. It's a habit that at best does little but occupy your thoughts at best and at worse makes you seem unserious when you consistently forget tasks. Instead, make it a habit to consistently write or type down your tasks in real-time. Noting your thoughts down makes them more concrete and are a solid first step to figuring out where you start with managing your tasks. Take a blank sheet of paper and put down every task that you can think about. From doing your laundry to sending your boss a draft of your presentation. Take all the tasks from your head and put them down on paper.

  2. Next, choose a tool with which you'll take down all your tasks. This could be a notebook or an app. If it's a notebook, I'd recommend you choose something that feels substantial i.e. a hardcover or a Moleskine notebook. If you choose to use an app, there are multiple options like Todoist, Microsoft To-Do, Omnifocus and Things. I've tried all of them and found that Things works best for me. However, it's rather pricey and only works with the Apple ecosystem. If you're on Windows or Android, Microsoft To-Do should suffice. If there are other options that you use, please let me know on Twitter and I'll include them. 🙏🏾

Behavioral Psych Tip: How you frame your tasks plays a significant role in spurring you to complete them. Frame your tasks in action terms. So instead of writing 'Laundry', you should write 'Get Laundry Done'. This frames your task as an action, which puts you in the action-driven...frame of mind. Pun intended. 😉

Organise Your Tasks

Once you've put down your tasks, it's time to organize them! The mistake people make is putting down their tasks and then doing nothing afterwards. You might feel productive because you've put down what you need to do, but if you don't organise your tasks with the intention of working on them, you've failed. Think about this like your clothes. If you leave everything in one disorganised pile, you'll find it difficult to spot the favorite pair of socks you're looking for. Instead, if you took the time to sort through your clothes and arrange them by type; underwear, socks, shirts, trousers, and dirty clothes (hopefully) in all their respective groups, you'd find what you need immediately. 🔍

The way grouping your clothes makes it easier for you to find what to wear, grouping your tasks makes it easier for you to identify what you need to focus on. Like most people, your tasks will typically fall into these three groups:

  1. Personal

  2. Occupation/Career/Business

  3. Miscellaneous

Break Down Your Tasks

Staying on the laundry analogy, even when you have a pile of shirts together, you still need to organise them by shirt type. So categories could be t-shirts, long-sleeves, short-sleeves, polo shirts. This helps you quickly find the one you want. The way you organise your tasks is similar - you have to break them down so they're specific enough to be picked. Why do we need to break down our tasks? Because when tasks are large and vague, we see them as insurmountable. It's hard to figure out where to start, so we ignore the task in the hopes that it somehow sorts itself never does. It only gets worse as more tasks pile on and time becomes more scarce. 😭

The way to deal with this kind of situation is to take the task and break it down into simple bits. When you see the small actions you need to take, the whole project then appears more achievable.

Here's an example.

If you were placed in charge of organizing an online conference, how would you process this as a task?

  1. Research services for video conferencing

    • Google best services

    • Ask friends online and offline

  2. Select and pay for service

  3. Draft event outline by session and time

  4. Curate speaker list:

  • Email speaker, inviting them, providing details of their sessions

  • Prep final event outline with confirmed speakers

  1. Curate conference attendant:

  • Draft event summary, with conference tool link, and time

  • Create Eventbrite page for RSVPs

  • Share event on social media

  1. Email invite to attendants

You can see how we’ve made the act of organising an online conference easy by breaking it down into smaller tasks which require minimal effort.

Put Deadlines to Tasks

Now that you're clear on what to do, you have to be clear on when to do it. Putting deadlines to your tasks and making the effort to keep to these deadlines is the next step to conquering your tasks. After you set a deadline, be sure to add it to your calendar. This makes your tasks even more obvious because now you're reminded when they're due. I tend to set my deadline for a task a day before it's due. This way I have a buffer in place to ensure that it gets done. 📆

It's easy to get into auto-pilot mode and ride the wave until tasks are due and you're panicking to get them done, so it helps to shine your eyes. Remember, note down your tasks, organise them, break them down, then review and include deadlines so you're fully conscious and ready to take on the work.

After you're prepared for your tasks, you'll have to...well...get them done! This is where things get tougher, so in the next section, we'll discuss how you build the habits to discipline yourself and complete your tasks. See you next week! 👋🏾

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