Every productive person has a system for getting things done.

You can’t be productive unless you have a system, a method, a process, whatever you want to call it. Basically, you have a way of doing things. Some people invent a system. Some people learn a system. But everyone has a system.

In this article, I’ve laid out some of the most popular and effective productivity systems so you can get your productivity groove on.

Getting Things Done (GTD)

Getting Things Done is the brainchild of David Allen, and explained in his book, Getting Things Done.

Getting Things Done.jpg

The process begins with a massive brain dump to clear the mind of all the conceivable tasks in your life. Once the tasks are all put on paper, you can begin getting them done.

Getting Things Done has the advantage of putting you in control of your entire life. Allen covers six areas of focus:

  1. Current actions
  2. Current projects
  3. Areas of responsibility
  4. 1-2 year goals
  5. 3-5 year goals
  6. Life goals

Once all your tasks are outlined and organized into one of the six categories, you can being knocking them out.

Things that don’t take much time should be done soon (“If it takes less than two minutes, then do it now.”)

Things that take a long time, such as a major project, should be broken down into a series of smaller, quicker projects.

GTD is the modus operandi for many successful people.

Drawbacks: The startup time that is required may be hard for some people, and the implementation can be complicated.

Pomodoro

A productivity guru named Francesco Cirillo invented Pomorodo, a productivity system built on the idea of getting things done in predetermined blocks of time.

Implementing Pomodoro is very simple. You break a task up into 25 minute segments, called Pomodoros. In between each Pomodoro, you take five a five minute break. After four Pomodoros, you take a longer break.

Some devotees use a cute tomato-shaped timer set at 25 minutes. Seriously. (Pomodoro is tomato sauce in the culinary world.)

There are six objectives in organizing your schedule Pomodoro-style.

  • Objective 1: Find out how much effort an activity requires, divided into Pomodoros (25 minutes)
  • Objective 2: Protect your Pomodoro from any and all interruptions.
  • Objective 3: Estimate the Pomodoros needed for an activity.
  • Objective 4: Structure each Pomodoro into a three-step process: 1) Recap, 2) Work, 3) Review
  • Objective 5: Create a timetable that matches your workflow and life.
  • Objective 6: Focus on your personal objectives.

The ideas of Pomodoro are explained in the book, Pomodoro Technique.

Image from http://pomodorotechnique.com/book/

The advantages of the Pomodoro technique are four-fold

  1. Work with time, not against it.
  2. Eliminate burnout.
  3. Manage distractions.
  4. Create a better work/life balance.

Drawbacks: Pomodoro works well for micromanaging your workday, but it limits flexibility and interactivity. Some people find that it is too structured, preventing them from coping with the shifting demands of a high-pressure, multi-tasking job.

Zen to Done (ZTD)

Zen to Done, pioneered by Leo Babauta, is explained in his book, Zen to Done. The premise is this: “It’s about the habits and the doing, not the system or the tools.”

  • ZTD piggybacks on Getting Things Done, but reverses some of its alleged shortcomings.
  • ZTD focuses on habits, where GTD focuses on the system.
  • ZTD focuses more on actually doing the tasks, whereas GTD seems to focus on creating a system, and hoping the system will produce higher levels of productivity.
  • ZTD focuses on structuring a day around three MITs (Most Important Tasks), and the week around several Big Rocks (major projects), in contrast to the unstructured nature of GTD.
  • ZTD focuses on simplification, allowing you to focus on the essentials (rather than trying to do everything).
  • ZTD focuses on goal achievement (top down), whereas GTD is a bottom-up approach, doing whatever little things come at you.

Zen to Done’s emphasis on habits is one of its strongest features. Here are the ten habits of a ZTD master:

  1. Ubiquitous capture.
  2. Make quick decisions on things in your inbox, do not put them off.
  3. Set MITs for each day.
  4. Do one task at a time, without distractions.
  5. Keep simple lists; check them daily
  6. A place for everything
  7. Review your system and goals weekly
  8. Reduce your goals and tasks to essentials
  9. Set and keep routines
  10. Seek work for which you’re passionate

Zen to Done is a beautifully simple system, which makes it easy to adopt and implement, with little to no startup time. (Full disclosure: This is the system the author uses.)

Drawbacks: Zen to Done doesn’t work for every type of workflow management. Some find that it does not have a structured approach to managing time, because of its focus on tasks.

Don’t Break the Chain

This system, inspired by Jerry Seinfeld, focuses on “creative success.” It has helped people in creative occupations become more systematic and disciplined in accomplishing their tasks.

Here’s how it got started. Seinfeld started off the new year with a big calendar. He made a big, fat, red X over each day in which he successfully accomplished his goal of writing new material.

That’s it.

And that’s the system. 1) Get a calendar. 2) Decide on what you want to accomplish each day. 3) Mark an X over each day that you accomplish your goal.

Adam Dachis of Lifehacker says that this system “fixed my procrastination problem.” He explains how to put the system in place:

  • Figure out your goals. Three is a good starting point.
  • Define the daily minimums for each goal: For example: Do three pushups, clean office for five minutes.
  • Create a plan for lapses. You’re going to miss your goal sometimes, so allow your chain to accommodate occasional breaks. For example, allow yourself to put an X in a different color if you’re sick or on vacation, or allow yourself three floating “skips” each month.
  • Put your calendar in a prominent place on your wall.
  • Use a huge red marker and put an X over each day that you’re successful.

Don’t Break the Chain can help you with your procrastination. It’s basically a hack to build consistency, form habits, and gradually achieve your goals.

Don’t Break the Chain is very simple. You can start right now.

Drawbacks: Because of its simplicity, it doesn’t exactly work for organizing an entire day or managing your hours.

How to choose a productivity system.

Once you start dabbling in productivity, you start to realize something very unsettling: All this productivity stuff about streamlining and simplifying is actually very complicated. There are so many options! So many approaches! Aagh! And then you freak out and go back to wallowing in your unproductive mire.

How do you choose?

  1. Just pick a method. All of these systems are designed to do one thing: get stuff done. So, just pick one. Make a decision in the next sixty seconds.
  2. Try it. Once you try a system for at least thirty days, you’re free to stick with it or try something different.
  3. Make your own. Once you settle into your system, you need to customize it. Your situation is different from David Allen, Leo Babauta, and Jerry Seinfeld. You have unique needs for your specific situation.

Creating a productivity system can be overwhelming at first, but the ultimate goal is streamlined simplicity like you’ve been dreaming of. Yes, there’s a learning curve, but you’re paving a road for a beautiful simplicity.

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