Life is complicated.
And it doesn’t seem to be getting any simpler. Each day there’s a new distraction vying for our attention. A different shiny object begging us to take it out of its case and play with it.
We wear our 80+ hour work-weeks like a badge of honor. We love to tell everyone how busy we are because it makes us feel important. Or we just think that’s how it’s supposed to be.
At least that’s how it was for me.
Until I decided to change. I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to start completely over and change everything. I wanted to live more of my life and I didn’t want to sacrifice another moment.
One problem. I didn’t know how to do that. I was still wasting lots of time and working inefficiently. It’s what I knew. So I went on a quest to change that.
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After reading enough personal productivity books and blogs to choke a great white shark, and trying them out in my own life, I found a combination of bits and pieces that fit together beautifully.
This (simple) productivity system is how I manage my months, weeks, days, and even hours to accomplish a lot in little time.
I wish I could say that all of this came easily but the truth is, this system came as a result of hundreds and hundreds of hours of experimenting and lots of pain.
Today I’m able to get more done in under 17 hours than I would have been able to get done in 40 hours in the past. Heck, I’m able to get more done in one week than I could have done in months before.
I’m able to handle multiple projects, clients, companies, websites and have true work-life balance. I spend time with my family, I work out, I walk in the park, I mentor people, I meditate and get to do a whole lot more. Each day. And this came simply making a decision, having a system and staying committed.
Simple Doesn’t Always Mean Easy
One thing that I have learned is that if you put time into planning and being very clear about what is most important in your life (for the big picture and day-to-day), everything else is easier. You can work a lot less because you are truly working smarter and clearer.
This system comes down to 4 basic concepts:
- Dream It. What do you really want from life? What are your goals, dreams and ambitions? If you don’t know, none of the rest of this stuff is going to matter.
- Dump It. Get it all out of your head and onto paper. Clear your mind so you can truly be productive.
- Map It. Use a mind map to create a simple system to manage your overall goals (both big and small picture).
- Chunk It. Harness the power of a Japanese productivity technique from the 1940’s and a simple kitchen timer to break everything down into simple, visual tasks.
To set the context, I’ll state the obvious – all of us have the same 24 hours in each of our days.
What sets apart extraordinary people from the ordinary are just two things:
What they choose to go after and how effective they are at it.
Simple, isn’t it? Are you up for being extraordinary?
1) Dream It.
“Begin with the end in mind.”— Stephen Covey
The first step is to set up the big picture, the context of your life. To do this, start with your ideal life.
When I first did this, I was at a point in my life where every single aspect of it was about to change. They had to.
A lot of the things that I put down seemed impossible, but that was ok. To avoid drowning in details, I based it on on a One-Page Plan system that I learned from Marc Allen. For each of my major goals, I set up a simple one-page plan. This self-imposed page limit forces me to abstract to the most important top-level details.
You may be asking now, “How do I know what goes into that one page and what doesn’t?” Since I don’t know what your major goals are, I can’t give you a specific list. However, here are some useful questions to ask yourself.
- If I forgot this element, would I still reach my goal? If not, you should probably include it.
- Is this a specific implementation approach? If yes, consider excluding it, putting it in a lower-level document or tool.
- Is this a specific task I need to do? If so, it likely belongs in a lower-level document or tool such as a calendar, to-do list, etc.
Something very important to remember here…. There’s a good chance that a lot of this will change. I don’t think for a second that I can predict what is going to happen in five years or even next year or next month. I simply have a clear goal of where I want to be and who I want to be and then simple plans to help guide me there.
Something else that’s really important to remember here… Don’t worry if you can’t fill in all of the details for any of your dream goals. For some of mine I simply have the goal down and that’s okay. I don’t know how I am going to get there but I know that the plan will be revealed when I’m ready.
2) Dump It.
Always keep your mind as bright and clear as the vast sky, the great ocean, and the highest peak, empty of all thoughts.
— Morihei Ueshiba
Human memory is a survival tool, not an existence tool. We remember most easily things that really matter to us. Minutiae of every project or goal we’re involved in – not so much. This means that keeping all these details in our memory exacts a toll on us. It causes anxiety and stress. Clear your mind.
Set yourself free – dump it all into a physical notebook, Google Doc, or whatever you want it. Write it down and get it out of your head. The space this opens will do wonders for your ability to focus on what you’re engaging in, letting you stay present in the moment.
Organize, Divide, and Conquer
Now that you’ve cleared your mind, it’s time to organize your own five-year one-page plans into detailed strategies and tactical details. The theme here is to organize, divide into projects, and set in motion the plans and tools to let you conquer each.
Don’t worry if you don’t really know how you are going to get there. That’s okay. The details aren’t as important as the destination. By picturing your goals and knowing what your dreams are, you are giving your subconscious mind something to work towards.
Think of your subconscious mind as GPS navigation for your car. You put in your destination and the navigation leads you there.
3) Map It.
“All you need is the plan, the road map, and the courage to press on to your destination.”
— Earl Nightingale
At it’s core, a mind map is simply a diagram used to visually organize information. Mind maps can be used for anything from note-taking to brainstorming to summarizing or simply to sort out a complicated idea.
I use a mindmap to organize the big picture of what I want to accomplish. This awesome visual tool lets you add new items, delete items, or drag-and-drop items to new nodes. This last part helps if you’re reorganizing your projects, delegated something, or better yet, accomplished it. A mind map is not intended for planning your day, or even your week (at least for me). It’s best used to set up a clear visual representation of everything you’re engaged in.
A mind map lets you graphically represent the hierarchy of projects, deliverables, and tasks. You can use font size and color to easily visualize what’s important and/or urgent (more on that below). You can also link to websites, resources, or even docs on your own computer.
The visual nature of a mind map also lets you see if any of your projects are overloading you (e.g. too many urgent tasks glaring red at you).
By reviewing your mind map weekly, you can see what you’ve completed, which adds motivation for the coming week. If you report to someone else, your “Done” section is a great resource for writing that weekly report. Whether you report to others or just yourself, it’s amazing how good it feels to delete a couple dozen tasks you knocked off in the past week.
Each Friday afternoon, I review my map for about 15 minutes. I start by collapsing the details down, so I see the top-level picture without being overwhelmed by the details. If I started a new project, I add in its top-level node and start populating its deliverables and tasks. Next, one project at a time, I zoom in to see all the tasks for each of its deliverables, adding new ones based on new developments and realizations. To keep clarity, I delete from the “Done” node those tasks that have been there for the past week, and repopulate it with tasks I finished over the past week. Now, when I clearly see what’s currently important, what’s urgent (and what tasks are both) I can choose which tasks go into my coming week’s plan.
4) Chunk It.
“The key to success is the strategic management of your time. Most of the really important work you do requires large chunks of unbroken time to complete. Your organizational skills and ability to carve out these blocks of high value, highly productive time, is central to your ability to make a significant contribution to your work and your life.” — Brian Tracy
Next, since you’ve committed to being extraordinary, have taken on large problems that energize you, and now have also mapped out all your projects in a mind map, it’s time to plan the specifics of your coming weeks and days. For this, I like the Getting Things Done (GTD) approach, and using a Kanban to implement it. I could go into major details about each of these subjects but for the purpose of trying to keep things simple, here’s some context:
- GTD is all about storing, tracking and retrieving the information related to the things that need to get done.
- Kanban is a simple technique to visualize and control your work.
A Kanban board is a great tool for implementing the GTD workflow:
If you aren’t already using a mind map, you can set everything up using Kanban, but I don’t recommend that. Instead, use the Kanban to set up just the coming week. This helps you not just get things done, but ensures the things you do are the right ones. Two simple principles when setting up your personal Kanban:
- Visualize what you’re working on
- Limit your work in progress so you don’t get overwhelmed or discouraged.
Using the right-most column of your Kanban for completed tasks is very motivating. As your week progresses, you keep moving tasks from left to right, with each one ending in the “Done” column. Talk about taking pleasure in your small victories! Keeping a Work In Progress (WIP) limit means that if you want to start working on something, you must first finish something you’re already engaged in. This encourages you to finish things, which is the be-all and end-all of extraordinary productivity (well, beyond choosing the right things to do, of course). One possible implementation of the Personal Kanban is as follows.
- Future (place new things you think of here, unless they’re urgent)
- Later This Week (place 25-40 things you plan to do this week)
- Today (pull 2-8 things you intend to do today from the Later This Week column into this one)
- Doing Now (pull into this column the one thing you’re working on right now)
- Delegated (this is especially useful if you have team members or an assistant you’ve assigned tasks to)
- Done (when you pull a task here, you can pull a new one from Today to Doing Now)
Here’s what mine looks like (click on the image for the full size):
Each morning, I review my Kanban board, move my Most Important Tasks (MITs) from This Week to Today, and once I begin working on move the most important one from Today to Now (which I have as Current Pomodoro). As I complete my tasks, I move them to the Done column, and pull another from the Today column to Now. If I think of something new I have to do, unless it has to be done urgently, I put it in the Backlog column, and on Friday, add it to my mind map.
Keep in mind that a personal Kanban is exactly that – personal. Your board will doubtless end up looking different than mine, and that’s a good thing. Think of it as a work in progress. Something you keep improving as you see what works for you and what doesn’t. It’s not just that what works for you will be different than what works for me.
As in all things, a bit of common sense goes a long way. For example, with few exceptions, I don’t bother creating a specific task or Kanban card for an email, nor do I do so for repetitive tasks. Instead, I allocate a specific time slot (or several) to handle all such tasks at once (chunk ’em), so they don’t distract me throughout the day. I do the same for any tasks others ask me to do, which are not part of my core projects.
This is always a challenge, but it’s critical to minimize how much of my time and focus I spend on things that are important for others, but less so for me. This doesn’t mean I assign those no importance. However, the importance is mostly that of maintaining relationships, as opposed to having the tasks have direct importance for me.
Your Kanban board is where you look throughout the day whenever you complete a task, or when you feel the need to pause and reflect on your work flow. Along with your weekly reflection on your mind map, this will keep you on-task, doing the right things, and finishing them. Of course, your process and flow may be such that you need to revisit your mind map more frequently, or less. As with all productivity processes and tools, it’s up to you to find the best way for you to manage yourself.
Recommendation: If you want someone who really “gets” productivity and goes deep, I’d highly recommend checking out “The Agile Activist” Paul Klipp. He was a huge inspiration for so much of my productivity work and especially understanding priorities and balance.
Re-Anchor Yourself in Today
Wouldn’t it be great if you could have a great day, every day? You can! I share my system for that elsewhere, but the most important parts are simple: Have a plan for the day and visualize success. One-Page Plans, mind maps and Kanban boards are great for the strategic view, and even for tactical planning. But when the rubber meets the road, you need a simple, straight-forward, actionable plan of what you’re going to do today. Not tomorrow. Not next week. Not next year. Today!
“Visualization is daydreaming with a purpose.” — Bo Bennet
One of the keys to achieving your goals is your ability to visualize them. So, if it helps, listen to an inspirational song, or put on music that relaxes you, or the opposite – energizes you. Then, spend a few minutes visualizing your day unfolding positively. Finally, go further into the future, picturing where and who you want to be.
Ready, Get Set, Pomodoro!
The most effective way that I’ve found to get work accomplished is the Pomodoro Technique. I’ve gone into my version of the Pomodoro system in detail in a separate post, but the actionable part is simple:
- Choose a task
- Set a timer for 25 minutes
- Work on your task until the timer rings, then put a checkmark on a tracker
- Take a five minute break (you just completed your first Pomodoro!); then
- Repeat steps 1-4 three more times, followed by a 15 minute break
You might think you can easily complete 12 to 20 Pomodoros in your work day, or 80 each week. From personal experience, that path leads to frustration and overwhelm. What works for me is to define my work week as completing 40 Pomodoros. That’s less than 17 hours! If you don’t make the mistake of trying to cram that into a Monday-Friday 9 to 5 straitjacket, you have 168 hours each week, so you only work ~10% of your time!
This doesn’t mean I don’t do anything work-related during the other 90% of my time. I normally spend another 20-25 hours in meetings, on phone calls, networking, etc., but I don’t count those as work time.
The interesting thing is that I get more done in those 17 hours of intensely focused work than I used to get done in 80 to 100 hours of a crazed “busy” work schedule.
As added encouragement, for each Pomodoro I complete, I make a check-mark on my calendar for the day. At the end of each day I look back and see how many I completed that day, as well as during the previous days of that week. Since I’m committed to getting 40 done each week, I try really hard to complete six to eight each day, so by the end of the week I have the sense of accomplishment that comes from knowing I hit my target.
Being human, I’m not always in the best place physically or emotionally to fire on all cylinders. When that happens, I shift my focus. If I feel physically low, I work on my health and wellness. If I’m sad, I do something that makes me happy, like spending time with my wife and daughter. That way I’m always mindful of Stephen Covey’s seventh habit – sharpening the saw.
Now that you’ve read this post to the end, I’d appreciate any comment, suggestion, or question you may have. Leave a comment below. Then, get cracking on your own plan. What are you waiting for? Your life is out there waiting!
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