Balancing structure and flexibility for productivity

Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time looking at how to be more productive. I’ve looked at more task management apps that I can remember, read about many systems and tried all sorts of different tools and techniques. The problem has always been the same. They, I assume, must work for large cohorts of people. It’s just that I’m never in those cohorts. And I think I’ve finally understood why those systems and apps don’t work for me.

All those systems and apps share one common feature. They’ve been made into products. and that means they have been refined and sharpened so that they fit a specific way of doing things.

For example, look at Inbox Zero. It was all the rage a few years ago and I know some people swear by it. The idea, developed by a productivity expert, is that you don’t let your inbox dominate your life. That’s a good thing. But it was then made into a bunch of ‘products’ to help you totally declutter your inbox so that there were literally no messages in it. Everything is either filed, archived, deleted or shifted to a prioritised to-do list.

Once it shifted from a philosophy to a product it became a prescription. I look at email management as being healthy. If a cluttered inbox is like a health condition, you can either take some medicine to make it better or you can change your lifestyle to be healthier. The original philosophy behind Inbox Zero was a lifestyle choice. But others made it into medicine (yuck!).

We’re all individuals

What I discovered, after many years, is that no one works exactly like me. People may do similar jobs (I’m really a professional communicator that applies that skill to a number of different contexts) but no-one works like me. My current workload is a good example.

I have writing projects for several clients currently in progress. Some are at the “organise interview” stage, others have been drafted and are with clients for review, some are at the final draft and others are complete and I’m awaiting payment. I’m also preparing a presentation for a workshop I’m facilitating as well as sorting out a bunch of administrative and operational tasks for my businesses.

I receive information about those things via email, text messages, over social media, through phone calls and during meetings.

The approach I settled on and used for about three years or so was to have a template I created that allowed me to plan each day for a week, including exercise time, domestic chores like cooking, laundry, school drop-offs and pick-ups as well as my work tasks.

I refuse to use paper so I made that template into a PDF and I filled it on on my iPad at the start of each week and ticked things off and moved them as needed. That worked well as it had the two elements I really need from a great planning tool.

  • Structure
  • Flexibility

Many systems are really strong on structure. Often they’re presented as “Follow these steps and use this tool and you’ll be more productive”. But they rely on you changing your way of working to fit someone else’s idea of how to be productive.

Learning how to be productive is a journey

I’ve been self-employed for well over a decade. In that time I have changed everything from how I organise my desk, to the tools I use for task management to the applications I use every day. And that means how I organise my time and get things done has evolved.

One of the things I’ve learned is that I’m better at certain types of work at different times of the day. There’s a bunch of research around chronotypes (this short podcast is a good summary of chronotypes) and I’ve learned that creative work, like designing presentations, is best done in the afternoon while intense writing is great in the mornings.

That template I mentioned has changed several times over the years although the core of it, a daily plan for each week, has remained intact. But the rest of the template has changed as the nature of my work and what I’ve learned about how I work has changed.

I’ve now adopted a planning tool, Sunsama, which works for me as it’s flexible. Rather than being a prescription for productivity, it helps me reinforce the work habits that have worked for me.

As we head into a new year that is hopefully less disrupted than 2020 it’s a good time to think about how you work and not just what you do. I don’t think there’s a single system that works for everyone but by reflecting on what works best for you, you can create a system that lets you get the most out of your time.