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Key messages:
– You are unique! Just because some productivity system works for someone else doesn’t mean it will work for you today!

– Accomplishment beats busyness!

There has been an avalanche of productivity books and content over the past decade. Indeed, the last time I checked Amazon had over 10,000 books on Time Management. They pretty much all claim to provide the answers but in truth many are just a rehash of earlier ideas. This post simply looks to consolidate some of the books and content that I have found helpful or seen others benefit from.

If you’re reading this, I assume you want to become more productive.

My question to you is – Why? What are you going to do with the time you free up?

Moreover, how do you measure your productivity?

“Productivity is focus, creativity is unfocus”
Former VP of Twitter Bruce Daisley

Productivity is ultimately not an end in itself and would hopefully be in service of something bigger. It isn’t about doing more; it is about what we accomplish. Indeed, the biggest challenge can simply be identifying what it is we want to have accomplished. Trouble working that out? Steve Job’s “Don’t Waste Your Life Living Somebody’s Else’s” speech is inspirational on this point. In essence, if you live each day as if it were your last there is no reason not to follow your heart.

Rather than trying to do more, what about doing less?

Before you explore productivity hacks with a view to doing more just ask yourself:

  • Do I struggle setting priorities? Basically, is everything important?
  • Do I overpromise?
  • Do I overdeliver? What is the cost of that?
  • Do I schedule Focus Time? (2 plus hours per day of uninterrupted time to work on a task or project)
  • Do I multitask or switch between tasks? [This can be massively counterproductive so consider reducing]

  • Can I shift some meetings / calls to asynchronous channels (email…)?
  • Can I schedule meetings such that I keep blocks of time free?
  • How often do I check my email?
  • Do I allow myself to be distracted?
  • Are there tasks I can automate?

  • Are there tasks I can outsource?

Make up Your Own Mind!

If you take anything away from Steve Job’s speech or from this post it will hopefully be that you need to find your own path. You are unique, your life and work challenges are unique so take all productivity tips with a pinch of salt. No matter how cool a hack, technique or app seems, if it doesn’t work for you let it go. Also, consider looking at productivity in terms of accomplishments rather than busyness. Isn’t the goal to accomplish what you want with the fewest steps and least effort?

Take the First Step Today

The first practical step in any time journey is reflecting on how you use your time, energy and attention. You can take that step today with the help of a host of free recourses and apps. I am not going to recommend apps here purely because I have yet to meet anybody who is looking to spend more time on their phone. For the rest of us, we’re trying to head in the opposite direction and facing constant barriers. Paper may be old tech but it still works!

Chris Bailey, author of The Productivity Project, has kindly provided a number of free templates for assessing your time usage and energy levels and ultimately calculating your Biological Prime Time, which he argues is when you might consider doing those high value-added activities.

I have used a host of diary and energy management systems over the years. My feeling is that all systems need to be continually tweaked because our needs and challenges are continually changing. Nothing is going to last forever so please keep that in mind. The best system is simply the one that works for you today.

Nevertheless, here are two of the systems I am currently using:

1) The Daily Journal Systemthis is the one I actually use for my programmes. All you need to do is to change the date in cell C2 in the Week 1 Daily Journal tab and you’re good to go. This system includes a daily planning and reflection cycle that gives you the opportunity to learn each and every day. It is also formatted in a way that allows for quick weekly reviews to embed any learnings.

Over the days it can also be helpful to break down your invisible workload in the Week 1 Invisible Workload tab. What is your invisible workload? It is basically everything that burns up mental, physically and spiritual energy but sort of flies under the radar. It can reduce available mental resources and create a sort of existential sense of constant stress.

For many it is that seemingly endless mental work required to keep life and work on track: planning, scheduling, even remembering. For example, some clients spend a chunk of time and energy each day thinking about and managing their calendars and to-do lists whilst others struggle to let go of tasks they have delegated and keep churning them over in the minds. No matter how minor they may seem, they all require time and energy.

If the explanations aren’t clear, you find gremlins or you need guidance feel free to email me (tom @ tomoleary.ie). This is not intended to be a time logger – that has its place but not many people are going to be motivated to do it for more than a couple of days. If you do need a time logging template you can download it here.

    2) Balanced Life SystemI developed this system for myself. It is the first thing I open in the morning and last thing I shut down at night. It is based on much reflection and work with clients.

    It is designed to reflect the reality that our lives are split into a whole series of identities and roles (in my case dad, husband, friend, business owner, coach, educator, time thinker, climate activist, volunteer….). It can be very hard to answer big questions like “What do you want to accomplish over the next 5 years?” Who might answer such a question?

    It therefore felt natural to spread my activities across a whole series of buckets and write a mission statement for each one.

    Missions can then be guided by nearer term priorities, which ultimately get broken down into more granular outcomes (i.e., activities and tasks).

    Pro tip: This system allows you to establish what it is you want to accomplish in each area of your life and then track what you are doing on a daily basis. It quickly shows if you are spending too much in one area and not enough on others so you have the option to rebalance.

    This system is a step-up from the previous one and requires some level of reflection as to the roles you are playing in life and what your mission is in each one.

    For example, one of my buckets is entitled “Coaching and Educating!”. The mission statement is as follows:

    Coaching and educating individuals and organisations around unleashing the power of each moment!

    I then ask myself two questions each and every workday:

    • What conversation might I start today?

    • What opportunities might I create to advance this mission?

      By doing the same thing across the other buckets, I can keep track of my big pictures and live what for me is a more balanced life, which is my ultimate aspiration. You may have a different aspiration!

        Books and Authors That Have Helped Me the Most

        I don’t want to overload you so I’ll keep this list short. These are a good start!

        • Atomic Habits
          If you haven’t heard of Atomic Habits or its author James Clear you are in for a treat. James has a gift for packaging complex ideas in very simple language. This 8-minute talk on the importance of small habits is a great introduction to his work. His goal is ultimately to reduce the barriers to breaking old habits and creating new ones that better serve who you want to become. Whilst the book is specifically around habits, James has also written widely on productivity. You’ll find his most recent output here.
        • 18 Minutes
          If I am being honest this is the book I would love to have written and is the one that most closely aligns with my own thinking. The author, Peter Bregman, argues that it isn’t about getting more done, it is about getting the right things done. To this end, we can only accomplish what we want if we set clear aspirations for the next months or year and then work back. For me, this means classifying each task or mini-goal each and every day under one of my aspirations. I thus have pretty instant feedback on how much effort I am putting into each, allowing me to realign and reallocate my time and energy. Some really powerful ideas primarily for people happy to work within a more structured framework.
        • How to Be a Productivity Ninja: Worry Less, Achieve More and Love What You Do
          The author, Graham Allcott, aims to go beyond traditional time management techniques to incorporate Ruthlessness, Mindfulness, Zen-like Calm and Stealth & Camouflage into your daily routine. This guide, in the author’s words, “offers a fun and accessible guide to working smarter, getting more done and learning to love what you do again“. Before diving into this book, it might be helpful to watch this 37 minute Google Talk where the author quickly summaries his key arguments.