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In general, we all want to be more productive. It makes sense: When you’re focused and efficient, you get more done and have more clarity on what it is you’re working towards.
But productivity doesn’t just happen to people. Our brains are easily distracted. That’s why we often require some structure and a systematic approach to help us ensure that best practices stick. Productivity systems are those structures that help individuals and teams work smarter, not harder.
In this post, we’re looking at some of the best productivity systems you should consider when looking for the one that’s best suited for your needs.
What are productivity systems?
First: Um, what are productivity systems anyway?
Productivity systems are practices, guidelines, or systematic methodologies that help people get things done in an efficient manner. The best productivity systems are structured but flexible and are generally easy to adopt. There are many, many types of productivity systems out there, but the right one for you will depend on your personality, work style, motivators, and habits.
Why do productivity systems matter?
Productivity systems are important because they help keep our attention focused so we can get more done. With attention spans shorter than ever, this has never been more important.
University of California data shows that once you’ve been sidetracked from a task, it takes a whopping 23 minutes on average to get back on task. Yikes.
While it sounds easy in theory, “I’m going to be more productive today!” isn’t a great strategy for following through on that goal. However, with a system in place, you’ve got a roadmap that will help you execute and stay on task so you get more done in less time.
Next, let’s look at a few different types of productivity systems and see what people have to say about them.
6 different productivity systems
1. Getting Things Done (GTD)
Getting Things Done is a productivity system by David Allen, author of the book by the same name. This system starts with a brain dump (to get everything out on the table, or, in this case paper or a computer screen), and then sorting those tasks into six different areas of focus: Current actions, current projects, areas of responsibility, 1-2 year goals, 3-5 year goals, and general life goals.
From there, you can start prioritizing tasks and making real, tangible progress that makes what once seemed like a mountain of to-do list items more manageable and realistic. This is good news, considering data that shows employees who feel capable of accomplishing their workload have increased productivity over those who don’t. “Getting Things Done is essential so you don’t get lost in a sea of tasks,” said Phil Janecic, Founder of themindofsteel.
2. The Daily Trifecta
This productivity system focuses on creating a list of three key things you want to get done each day by writing them down the night before. The theory behind this approach is that even if you only get those three things done, the day is a win. It’s a smart approach that keeps you from overloading your to-do list and helps you stay realistic about accomplishing not every task, but only those that are most essential.
“The Daily Trifecta helps me set clear intentions for each day and identifies the tasks to focus on in the morning, as well as the potential barriers to those tasks.” -Jason Keath, Founder of SocialFresh
3. The Pomodoro Technique/Time Blocking
Both of these productivity systems encourage people to work in short sprints or intervals on a specific task, rather than switching frequently between a variety of things. With the Pomodoro Technique, you set a timer for 25 minutes and work without stopping, then take a 5-10 minute break, and repeat.
Others prefer a more loose version of this approach, which is called time blocking. It’s the same idea, but tasks are separated into blocks of time (usually 30-90 minutes each.) This format allows for focused work on a single to-do list item. It makes sense, too: A study from FSU showed that productivity and performance are at their peaks during uninterrupted 90-minute intervals. “For me, I just try to work on a task until my focus wanes. From there, I move onto something else,” said writer Paul Jarvis.
For others, apps help keep this productivity system top-of-mind. “I use ‘Zen Mode‘ on my OnePlus in 40-60 minute time blocks daily, and my productivity skyrockets when I do,” said Sam Lock of CleatSheetApp.
4. Bullet Journaling
Bullet journaling (called BuJo® for short) was developed by digital product designer Ryder Carroll. Carroll was diagnosed with ADHD and learning disabilities as a young adult, so he had to find new ways to be productive–which is how bullet journaling was born.
Bullet journaling is essentially a productivity system that serves as a form of mindfulness designed to help people organize their what while remaining mindful of their why. There’s a whole system and language to this approach that teaches users how to get the most out of the system, which you’ll see in the short video below.
“Bullet journaling changed the way I think about work, specifically around the idea of building your own flexible system. It accommodates what I need, rather than forcing me into a structure that doesn’t work for me.” –Brittany Berger, content marketing consultant
5. Seinfeld Calendar System
“I’ve always been a fan of the behavior modification side of the Seinfeld calendar system. It’s not necessarily a true productivity system with listed tasks, but it helps you build momentum toward completion and change.” -Joshua Garity founder of UX agency Candorem
Humans are competitive–even with themselves. That’s why comedian Jerry Seinfeld’s ultra-simple calendar challenge makes so much sense. Software developer Brad Isaac shared a story with Lifehacker a while back about Seinfeld’s unique calendar system he uses as a form of pressure that drives him to write and create: He hangs a large wall calendar in a prominent place that features an entire year on one page. Each day that he writes, he puts a red X over the day.
“After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain,” Seinfeld said.
6. Eat That Frog
The Eat That Frog productivity system is all about knocking out your biggest, most daunting task first thing in the morning so it’s done and out of the way. It comes from the Mark Twain quote: “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”
If your ambition, focus, and energy lags later in the day, this approach will help you capitalize on your morning momentum. Use it to get the big, scary stuff done and off your list first thing.
How to choose a productivity system
Choosing the right productivity system for you is really a matter of trial and error. You’ll want to explore a few different systems that sound like they might work for you, and then do a test run on each. Try each method for a full work week (so, five days) and make notes on your findings along the way. Within a few short weeks, you’ll likely discover which one is most effective for your work style and needs.
As you test and explore, be realistic about your needs. Ask questions like:
- Do you prefer highly visual systems? Tactile ones? App-based ones?
- Do you prefer a lot of structure, or just some loose guidelines?
- Which method fits most naturally in with your existing workflows?
- Which system is best at motivating and challenging you?
The Bottom line: You can read other peoples’ summaries and thoughts on these systems for days, but you’ll never truly know what’s best for you and your unique needs until you get hands-on and answer these questions for yourself.
Productivity systems: The structure you need
If you, like most of us, have the attention span of a goldfish, then a productivity system might be that little helpful piece of structure you need to stay focused, on task, and highly efficient during the workday. Experiment and find out which one best suits you (and enjoy the benefits and clarity it brings to your life.)