Category Archives: Workflow

Where Should You Start When You’re Struggling To Improve?

Who is this for? Those who want to improve, yet have no idea where to start.

My friends over at Asian Efficiency recently shared their 7 Truths About Productivity. They make several sound points, but I can’t help but feel as if they underemphasized what I believe to be an essential truth and a potential starting point for those looking to improve.

They examine self management, perfect systems, the importance of sex, time constraints, diet, technology and psychology. Throughout the piece they allude to what I believe to be the single most important truth: this isn’t about better understanding aspects of productivity, it’s about better understanding yourself.

When I first got serious about getting my act together, I put a fair amount of energy into discovering the tactics that might help, the tools I might try, the life changes I might make. I went to sites exactly like the one you’re reading now in hopes of discovering the secrets that would make all of the difference. These early experiments helped, some even made an impact, but they didn’t really make a difference.

The Problem With Premature Progress

As we look to improve, we crave progress. This usually implies forward motion. Our desire to forge ahead leads us to overlook our present struggles and motivations and causes us to overlook many of our current strengths.

My advice, forgo some of your productivity progress in favor of enhancing your understanding of current strengths, weaknesses, patterns and desires. Get to know yourself as well as you get to know the options that are available to you.

Don’t crack open Getting Things Done. Don’t download yet another app. Don’t try a new hack. Take out some paper or start a new text file and have at yourself. Really consider and clarify the way that you work. List out what’s working and force yourself to face what isn’t. Question your choices. Do you even want to get better at the thing you’re doing? Take the time to seriously examine who you are, what you’re doing how you’re currently doing things and what might be causing you to feel as if you need to improve. If it’s as simple as difficulty managing your volume of email, you’ll find no shortage of solutions. But it usually isn’t.

I’m not suggesting you start reading every self-help book out there, I’m not really even suggesting you stop considering your options. I’m just suggesting that you spend as much of your energy improving your self-awareness as your workflow. Much like that better workflow you’re looking to create, self-awareness takes time to cultivate. If you start by making self-awareness a priority, it will become a force multiplier.

The time I’ve spent enhancing this understanding certainly slowed my initial efforts, but it exponentially enhanced my long-term progress. A better understanding keeps me from trying things that would most likely be a bad fit. It lets me tweak what works for others to work for me. It has helped me to separate a critical issue that needs addressing from an interest that will soak up my attention, but do little to improve my creative output. It allows me to better observe my patterns and to catch myself when I’m falling back into old and unhelpful habits.

The Problem With Sites Like This

So many sites, including this one, encourage you to experiment, improve and evolve your personal productivity system. We suggest tools, tactics and life changes that can help you overcome whatever ails you. These are great resources as you progress, but their daily offerings are often a poor starting point.

As my friends over at Asian Efficiency later point out:

Technology is not the primary solution to your productivity issues.

You are.

[…]

Technology is a catalyst, not a fix.

Your knowledge, skills and insights are far more important than any app.

I think this speaks to far more than just technology and apps. It’s equally true of the tactics we attempt to adopt and tweaks to our psychology or physiology. We are always at the center of our challenges, and until we better understand them, we’re likely building around a core that is unstable.

My guess is that this isn’t your first visit to a site like this, and my guess is that whatever the other site suggested didn’t really fix the real problem. If it did, you wouldn’t bother reading a post about where to get started. So here’s what I suggest you try if everything you’ve been reading and everything you’ve attempted hasn’t worked: stop looking out and start looking in.

Don’t rush, don’t think of this as a box to check off. Consider attempting a larger mission. Make self-awareness an integral part of your attempts to do better. You aren’t just looking to improve your productivity, you’re looking to improve as a person.

Personalizing Someone Else’s Productivity System

Who is this for? While targeted at online entrepreneurs, this video can also help just about anyone looking to apply a basic, yet tactical approach to better handling their daily work.

I was recently invited by Chase Reeves to check out Fizzle, a community for online entrepreneurs that centers around carefully-created training videos. After watching his Productivity Essentials course – a great starting point for entrepreneurs struggling with their workload – I suggested that we have a “productivity throwdown”.

While I agreed with the big ideas and concepts of the course, I handle many of the smaller details differently. The overarching concepts he shares apply to almost anyone, yet I believe the details of how they should be implemented will vary from person-to-person.

Chase felt that a full-blown throwdown was excessive, but thought a conversation was in order. He even added the 35 minute discussion that followed to his Productivity Essential course on Fizzle.

It costs $1 to check this out (this also gives you full access the site for one month). If you’re struggling with your workload and are yet to dive too deeply into the world of productivity, Chase’s advice is well worth your time. As is our follow-up conversation on making it work better for you.

Note: This is not an affiliate link, I just like the approach and philosophy behind Fizzle (as well as Chase’s willingness to have someone “disagree” with him).

Information vs. User Disarray

Who is this for? Those struggling to determine the ideal number of tools to use in their workflow.

From Devir Kahan at BitQuill:

Over the last few weeks a problem that has only gotten worse with time started to bug me more than ever before. I call it “information disarray” and it is the issue of all of the important organizational bits of your digital life being scattered throughout a variety of different apps and services. Your todos are in one app, articles ideas in another, things you want to buy in another, movies you want to watch in another, appointments in another, and lists in still another. Everything is everywhere and you have no idea where to look to find something.   There was a time when there was a single application you could go to and see everything you needed to worry about or take care of that day/week. Now things are spread out all over the place with highly specialized apps each claiming little bits of information for themselves. I can never find a specific item that I want, and I have, more than once, missed important information because I was not in the right app at the right time.

We’re now offered an array of tools to help us manage our day-to-day, many of which overlap. It’s far too easy to take on too many of them and find yourself lost in the very tools you hoped would save you. That said, I also think trying to structure one tool to do it all (or aggressively minimizing tools for minimizing’s sake) to be an equally inefficient solution. Let’s face it, the lack of ever having a single application where you could go to see everything you needed is what led us to branch off and find more focused alternatives in the first place. 

While I agree that there is a very real concern about having too many tools doing too many things, I’m not sure I agree that this is a technology issue. To me, it’s strictly a user issue. I avoid highly specialized apps as they tend to lead to the kind of confusion Devir warns against. Rather than using a grocery app, I stick to a general list app (Listary is my current choice, but Silo is coming along nicely). This means that anything that would belong on a list, from hardware store needs to books I’d like to read, all live in one place. I may not get the advantages of more focused apps (such as Recall for book, TV and movie suggestions), but I never wonder where anything belongs.

Rather than obsessing on a single app or even the app count, I always find it’s better to think of these tools as part of a single workflow that’s meant to provide the clarity needed to get through the day, week, month and year. The solution, at least for me, digitally is the same as in my home: a place for everything and everything in its place.

I’m intentional about the tools I use, but I’m even more intentional about the way I use them. All written text goes into nvALT, reference materials go into Evernote, tasks are in OmniFocus, lists are in Listary, reminders are in Due, appointments are in Fantastical/Google Calendar. By the way, these tools are not mutually exclusive. If I need to get a piece of writing done by a certain date, there’s a task for it in OmniFocus with a link directly back into that piece. If I have a meeting, the reference material gets the same treatment in OmniFocus with a link back to my notes for the meeting.

In Devir’s case, he is trying to use Things to handle more of his workload. This may very well work for him, but if I tried to keep my daily tasks, my writing wants, my shopping lists and more in once place my system would implode in on itself. The clarity my system provides me would diminish and ultimately it would help me get less done. Between managing my home life, my work life and my personal projects, my task list is overloaded enough.

This may seem insane to some, it may even create some friction, but I never wonder where anything goes or where I need to go when I need something, I know. Is there still disarray in my day? Absolutely, but very little of it tends to come from my technology and if used right, I don’t think much of it will for you as well. It just requires taking the time the time to decide what to use, discovering the best way to use it and then having the discipline to actually use it that way. It isn’t always easy, but I’ve found it to be an effective tool for eliminating a fair amount of my daily disarray.