The Perfect Productivity System: A Simple List

Productivity System
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Many of us are looking for a perfect productivity system.

In our minds we visualize this perfect productivity system as being able to take control of the tasks in our lives, resulting in a more satisfying life. 

In our quest for looking for this perfect productivity system we construct a to-do list. The list resides with pen and paper, notes on the refrigerator, or maybe a whiteboard followed by a computer system, either self-built or purchased, and a dozen other options.

There’s a reason for this quest. Before we can say to-do, our list has expanded out of control. Before we know it we have more items on that list than we could possibly accomplish in any reasonable time. 

So what has the list done for us? It just made us confused.

On that list are promises to ourselves. However, a review of that list reveals promises that we cannot keep in a day, a week, and perhaps a lifetime. 

We have tried to organize the list, dutifully dividing it into “must do,” “should do” and “would like to do” sections.

We review that list and find items where we have absolutely no idea why it is on the list or, in some cases what the entry even means. 

Review also reveals items that can never be done due to changes in circumstances since they were added. 

We meant well. Items were put on the list so that we could point to it and defend our position that some day the item will be done.

We are now spending more time on maintaining the list than doing the items on the list. The sheer volume of items is depressing and slows us down. This makes it tricky, especially if you are working remotely thanks to the pandemic or changes in workplace.

Simple list and the purpose

Pause for a moment.

Let’s take a moment and reconsider what was the purpose of the list.

The list was started to remind us of things we couldn’t get to today. Then it was expanded to those items we needed to do in the near future. As the list grew, it included items we stumbled upon that we might like to do someday. 

What has this list done to our productivity? What is our cost in time, reviewing items on the list? What is the sense of putting something on the list that will never get done?

If we were to reach the end of our lives today, no one would care what was on that list. They would remember what we finished. 

We must keep the list manageable. 

In a large segment of my career, I worked for the executive of an Australian IT consulting contractor. There were endless meetings to attend, project reports to publish, plans to be made. My to-do list was fearsome. 

The executive kept his notes in a diary. I kept mine on individual dated pieces of paper that could be shuffled and prioritized at a moments’ notice. 

He mentioned one time that although I had all these pieces of paper, I would never miss a meeting, a project report, or a deadline, and it drove him crazy. He was using the latest techniques in productivity planning, yet I was more productive. 

The first reason was the ease of reprioritizing. He had to constantly search through his diary for notes on a project, while I kept my notes consolidated in a small loose-leaf notebook. I was able to keep the most important project in my focus, at the front of the book. 

The second reason was the number of pages in my book. The executive had no way of deleting his notes, so they grew as the year progressed. In the new year, he carried two diaries for a few months. 

My notebook was constantly being updated with the latest information. Reports kept track of the history. I live in “now.” Most of my notes lived in the “must do” section, with a few projects mentioned by the executive in the “should do” section. If nothing further came of them in a month or two, they were archived from my view and my attention. There was no “would like to do” section. 

Manage that list

In our own list, we need to look hard at the “would like to do” items. Can we write a summary of what we would like to do in the future and archive it on a “dream” list? Those items have no place on a to-do list. We will remember those items that are important to us. Delete the “would like to do” list entirely. 

Revisit the “must do” and “should do” items and ruthlessly pare them down to the few items that we can see actually accomplishing within a few weeks at most. If an item is a “should do” and can’t be dealt with for some time, document it and put it into an archive. It will be there when we need it. 

Keep the to-do list small and manageable. Reprioritize when necessary. I still keep my small loose-leaf notebook (and it is still a struggle to finish the most important things on the deadline). I carry it with me for those “waiting” times that somehow populate my day. 

Don’t let the “to-do” list interfere with the “is done” list of accomplishments. Oh, and as far as the perfect productivity system? There is none. Take it off the list. 

Live a vital life. 

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