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Summary:

The perfect productivity system is the web worker’s Holy Grail. But, like the Grail, this productivity system is surrounded by myth. Is the perfect productivity system just out there waiting to be discovered, or is it something you have to make on your own? I think […]

The perfect productivity system is the web worker’s Holy Grail. But, like the Grail, this productivity system is surrounded by myth.

Is the perfect productivity system just out there waiting to be discovered, or is it something you have to make on your own? I think it’s a little bit of both. So how can one come up with the perfect productivity system?

Know your working habits. The key to finding the perfect system is to know your needs. What conditions make you the most productive? Do you work better when it’s extremely quiet? If not, what kind of music or background noise do you like to hear when working? Do you prefer to work on a big project over a long period of time or do you tend to do better when you complete big tasks in one sitting? Try to remember the times when you felt most productive. What makes those times different from others?

It also helps to know which cues really attract your attention. If you like colors, you’ll probably benefit from a system that will allow you to color-code your tasks. If you’re stimulated by the spatial placement of things, you might benefit more from a mind map rather than a numbered to-do list.

Research what’s been done before. First, look at popular productivity systems and learn more about them. There’s David Allen’s Getting Things Done, Steven Covey’s 7 Habits, and, more recently, Leo Babauta’s Zen to Done. You don’t have to buy all the books, just look for resources on the Internet and learn what you can about these systems from a distance. You might not adopt any of these productivity systems, but it’s a good way to start looking for what works for you.

In my experience, subscribing to a few relevant blogs can be helpful, especially if the blogger talks about his or her own experiences with productivity. Some bloggers talk about how they modified an existing system to suit their needs, or about creating a whole new system for themselves. If some of their tips seem effective, give them a try. Again, keep in mind that it’s about taking only what can work for you. This is why it’s no surprise that most productivity bloggers out there get their ideas from more than one source.

Experiment with your schedule. Ever notice how some people say they work better early in the morning, while others prefer to work at night? Ideal schedules vary from person to person and you need to find out what works for your body clock. Web workers are particularly in luck when it comes to experimenting with schedules, since most of the time you don’t have to start working at 9:00am like everyone else.

I prefer to test new schedules throughout one workweek. It’s short enough, so it won’t greatly compromise work. But it’s also long enough to make strong conclusions.

When you make schedule experiments, it’s important to have only one thing to test. For example, if you want to experiment on your peak working hours, focus on that first before you move on to separate experiments with your peak working days or most productive working conditions. Doing one experiment at a time makes you assess your conclusions more accurately.

Aim for the simplest tools. One of the problems I faced when I tried making my own productivity system was that I got easily excited about using all the available tools I could get my hands on. The tools ranged from printable charts to web apps and downloadable software. Tools are essential to help you with time management and productivity, but don’t go overboard. Keep in mind that you won’t become productive when you use every single productivity tool out there. In fact, it’s an effective way to attract clutter. Test a few tools, find the ones that work, and stick with those.

Know that it’s a dynamic process. When you finally create a productivity system of your own, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve reached the end of the road. You’re going to come across a few obstacles that will result in some changes to your system. When this happens, it doesn’t mean that your system was a failure. It probably just means that there are some changes in your lifestyle or schedule that you have to factor in.

Don’t be disappointed if the process takes a little longer than you initially hoped for. It’s not something you can expect to figure out within an hour of reading this article. It’s something that will require a bit of introspection and time before you get it right. After all, there’s no universally perfect productivity system, there’s just a perfect one for you.

Have you tried looking for the perfect productivity system? How far along are you with your search?

  1. Joel Haasnoot Monday, May 26, 2008

    Ugg, I was up at 2am this morning looking for a productivity system :) For now I’ve settled on 8aweek to keep track of my browsing: It’s pretty sad to see 41 hours of browsing over the last week, of which 17 was “restricted” hours: i.e. fun and such.
    And, I revived my RememberTheMilk account, with Google Gears, I can also work offline: perfect!

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  2. [...] The prefect productivity system. Link. [...]

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  3. Great overview, Celine. I think and write about productivity a lot – and have ran through the gamut of systems. My current project is to try to design a system modular enough to be used by anyone but constrained enough to actually help people who haven’t done the research and who haven’t been messing with productivity systems for yours.
    I would like to address a couple of points:

    Re: Knowing your working habits. I think this is both the easiest and hardest thing to do, as it seems that there’re are so many variables at play. Recording your processes for a few weeks makes a huge difference – for my contention is that there are more generalities than one would think.

    Re: experimentation. I’ve found that 10 days is a bit more representative, mainly for the fact that it gets you through a weekend. Jumpstarting a cycle on Monday and ending on Friday is one thing – keeping that system in place through the weekend until the following Wednesday allows a bit more testing on whether the system is sustainable.

    Re: the simplest tools. Yes, yes, three times yes! There are more tools out there than one can try – and I say that because I try a lot through my blog and personal interests. To this day, the best tools for runway action is still paper – but paper’s not great about being able to look back to see what you’ve done.

    Re: the dynamic process. I think if you’ve master the principles of time management and figured out how you work, the rest will just be applying those processes to a new context. It’s much harder when you haven’t figured out why you’re more productive at some times than others, for you have to recreate the wheel everytime.

    Again, great overview.

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  4. [...] The Perfect Productivity System – Celine Roque GTD, Steven Covey, Leo Babauta: find the productivity system that suits you best [...]

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  5. Mind mapping software is a great tool for maintaining your to-dos or a full GTD system. You can add visual cues, such as numbers (for task priority) and percentage complete icons, which help you to quickly scan your list and know what needs your attention. You can also create links to associated files, web pages and e-mails, which saves time. And you can reorganize your map’s contents at will, as your needs and priorities change.

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  6. Hi Celine.
    I have to put in vote for simplicity. I have been off work ill for several months now and the nature of the complaint means that I’m exhausted most of the time. During this period I’ve had to manage my own healthcare, which is something we Brits are less used to than residents of North America. The project management for this is of essential priority, as it has a direct effect upon when I get better.
    At each stage of my illness completing a “step” in the project often reveals more steps that I need to get the GP (family doctor) the surgeon, my insurers and my employers all talking to each other and doing things to help me get better. Let me tell you, managing all of this lot when you feel very sick makes doing the same for clients on a multi-million pound IT project reasonably straight-forward.
    I had experimented with various software tools but have finally settled on LifeShaker http://www.funkycloud.com/lifeshaker/
    A simple approach that allows you to print out your tasks on paper to take with you, in your pocket, when you have to go to the chemist (drug store) or the hospital. Other more complex software was fine when I was at full-tilt, but the simpler software really is helping me get important jobs done while I’m at a low ebb. This, I think, is where simpler systems really come into their own: Complex is fine when you’re in A1 condition, but it’s the simple stuff that sees you through when you’re less than good.

    A great and timely article.

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  7. Well my productivity system has boiled down to my phone. i use the calendar and the tasks applications on the phone to keep track of what I have to do. And since I carry the phone with me everywhere and have a full qwerty keyboard on it, it is better than any web based tool!

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  8. [...] systems, it doesn’t mean you have to stick to its rules permanently.  There is no perfect system that’s already pre-made for you.  You need a bit of time, as well as trial and error, to [...]

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  9. [...] productivity systems, it doesn’t mean you have to stick to its rules permanently. There is no perfect system that’s already pre-made for you. You need a bit of time, as well as trial and error, to find [...]

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  10. [...] sure to read Celine Roque’s post “The Perfect Productivity System,” in which she gives good advice on ways to find a system that works for [...]

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