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Debunking Productivity Myths

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There are so many available tools and resources on productivity that it’s bound to make one crazy.  I confess that I was one of those productivity addicts who subscribed to all the GTD and lifehacking blogs out there, downloaded all the tools I could find, and signed up for every new Web 2.0 service.  I lived almost a year of my life doing that, and it’s a wonder that I didn’t get a heart attack.

If you haven’t found satisfaction with any of the productivity tricks you’ve tried, it’s possible that you’re mistaking some of the myths for facts.  These myths could come from something you’ve read, or they could be your own preconceived notions.  To get productive, you need to get rid of these myths.

What are they and how do you debunk them?

There is one system to rule them all.

Once you get into David Allen’s Getting Things Done, or other similar 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 something that works.

Organized = Neat

If your office is neat, does it mean that it’s organized?  If your office looks messy, should you clean it up?  Before we start criticizing ourselves for not being neat enough, we need to get our semantics straight.

Neatness or cleanliness is more of an aesthetic value.  Organization, on the other hand, is more about how things function.  For example, if you have a stack of folders and all those folders are aligned on top of a dust-free desk, that’s neatness.  The stack of folders are only organized if they are arranged in a way that makes each folder easy to access.  So even if the desk is dusty and the folders aren’t perfectly aligned on top of each other, as long as they’re arranged in a way that makes sense to you (chronologically or alphabetically), then they are organized.

If you’re the type of person who has a messy office and hates it when someone comes in to “clean it up”, you know what I’m talking about.  Just because things don’t look orderly or like they were arranged by a robot, it doesn’t mean you’re not organized.  If you can find anything in your office within 2 seconds, you’re doing great – whether you’re neat or not.

The more tools you have, the better.

With all the number of Web 2.0 tools out there, and the number of web workers eager to try out each tool that comes along, it’s a surprise that we get any work done.

As for me, I prefer to stick to the least number of tools, and I try to avoid daily usage if it isn’t necessary. Tools should be there to help you out, not suck up your time and attention, which, of course, is better spent on other things.

Your schedule should be tight.

As someone who focuses mostly on creative work, I’ve realized that both routine and randomness have their place in your schedule.  My partner used to be very specific about my schedule.  She even created a spreadsheet that listed what I was supposed to be doing every hour.  When I told her I wanted some randomness, she blocked out a few hours in the weekend and labeled them “Randomness”.  Not quite what I meant.

The one thing that should be absolutely rigid and non-negotiable are your peak working hours.  These are the hours of the day when you are most productive and creative.  As such, those hours are when you should get the bulk of your work done.

As for the rest of the day, I prefer to make a simple list in Google Calendar of the major things I should accomplish, both business and personal tasks are included.  I find that I can’t do more than 7 major tasks each day.  What I do in between those tasks depends on what I feel like doing, whether it’s taking a walk, reading a book, carpentry, or even working.  It’s the random tasks surrounding my routine that makes my day more interesting.  They even make my work feel more fulfilling.

The key is not to worry if you feel unproductive at times, there are still some ways for you to feel accomplished at the end of the day.  As long as you get your few major tasks done, you shouldn’t obsess about working during every waking hour.

What preconceived notions on productivity did you have?  Which of these notions were true, and which were false?

10 Responses to “Debunking Productivity Myths”

  1. Great post.
    Another myth is that you have to learn a complicated “system” to improve your productivity.

    In fact, changing/adding a few basic practices to your daily routine can make a huge difference to your productivity.

  2. @jaycruz

    Thanks. Something that always turned me off from productivity classes I attended over the years was I got a sales pitch at the end for overpriced crap that simply didn’t fit my needs. In fact in took once class where we actually analyzed when it was best to fly commercial or take the corporate jet. As if anyone in that room would ever have the luxury of flying in the corporate jet. I need a system that fits me. I shouldn’t have to shoehorn myself into a rigid, proprietary system. That’s why I love GTD.

  3. jaycruz

    I agree that a lot of productivity tools and productivity systems are hyped “myths”, but I’m with everything that John Mayson said. GTD gets lumped in the “productivity sexy hype” because there’s a lot customization and applications based on it, but like John Mayson said, it’s app agnostic. It’s just modeling the way we naturally work and helps you become aware.

  4. I always thought I could find a system that would just fit but it never did.

    The best any one person can do is work out the system that fits them and if they can’t find a perfect one then tailor it to your individual needs.

    Too many people switch systems at the drop of a next action list and never give their own system a chance to evolve. Your system should change with your requirements, not the other way around.

    People shouldn’t discount pen & paper either. As amazing as all these productivity applications are, sometimes the most basic of things is all you need.

    This is probably the best productivity article I have read in ages!

  5. I think the best efficiency tool is your motivation and drive. You can use scores of task management and organization tools unless you really want to improve your productivity all these tools are going to prove futile. So I think first of all one should start with a resolve to achieve. You can easily manage your tasks using a simple notepad file if you have really decided to stick to your task list.

  6. I’d like to add my thoughts to this discussion.

    I wholeheartedly agree no system is perfect. I think GTD comes very close and if I’m not mistaken Merlin Mann has praised GTD as being “application agnostic” meaning it’s more a philosophy than a system with defined tools and gadgets. However I have found some things in David Allen’s book just made no sense for me personally. I do not have a paper 43 folders system. I refused to buy a label maker. I do have 43 folders on my company’s Exchange server and in my GMail account and love it and I’m just fine using a marker for my paper folders. If you haven’t read his book, go BUY a copy. Don’t borrow it from the library, you need to own it because you will refer to it for years to come.

    For me organized does equal neat, but I’m slightly OCD, so just ignore me.

    When I adapted GTD I actually got rid of many of my “tools”. I put that in quotation marks because a tool is something that’s actually useful, what I had wasn’t. In fact just this morning I was trying to think up a new system to organize all of instructional-type material and notes. Then it hit me. Use my existing GMail account with the appropriate tags. DONE! No new tool needed. No learning curve. Nothing to buy.

    I turn 40 next year and I figured out in high school the key to productivity was not having a tight schedule. Yes, deadlines exist. There are certain commitments that have firm start and stop times. But stay on the balls of your feet with the remaining time. Things will come at you that you didn’t expect. When I got to college I had a good laugh at someone who scheduled his day to the minute thinking it was instilling discipline.