How to Be More Productive: Build a System and 10x Your Output
Ever heard the phrase, “Keeping up with the Joneses”?
The phrase actually comes from a comic strip Keeping Up with the Joneses, created by Arthur Momand in 1913. It portrays the lifestyle of the McGinis family, who (as you might’ve guessed) are in a constant struggle to keep up with their neighbors, the Joneses.
This became somewhat of the social norm of everybody in America throughout the 1900’s. People started relating material things to happiness. More wealth meant more stuff to buy and more happy feelings.
Professional marketers for big companies used this to their advantage and helped snowball things wildly out of control.
In essence, this is how the minimalist movement began. It took a few mindful geniuses to stop and think,
“Wait a minute, we’ve all been duped. We don’t need all this shit.”
So they got rid of their stuff and, magically, they became 100x happier. It turns out all that junk that was supposed to make people happy actually just weighed them down.
Now, I know what you’re thinking.
“What the hell does minimalism have to do with productivity?”
As fate would have it, the productivity realm is in the same place as the people trying to “keep up with the Joneses”.
World class marketers are pushing hack after hack, tool after tool upon everyone, and consumers are lapping it up like Pavlov’s dogs. At some point we have to ask ourselves if a high-tech productivity system is actually useful for achieving our goals.
It’s time we take a minimalist approach to productivity so that everyone can learn the basics of how to be more productive.
To do this, I’m going to teach you how to create a bare-bones productivity system that does 1 thing: gets results.
What is a Productivity System?
Maybe I’m in the minority here, but when I first heard of “productivity system”, I thought to myself,
“What the heck does that even mean?”
I had no idea what one was supposed to look like, or what it involved. My engineering background kept going back to rigid thinking. In the self-improvement realm, however, systems are somewhat of a different animal.
They’re not rigid. They’re designed to be frameworks, with the flexibility to be molded to fit individual human behavior. They’re as much about adopting the right habits as they are about using the proper tools.
As such, a productivity system is simply the processes, tools, and habits that you use on a daily basis to ensure the important stuff always gets done. Some months you won’t feel as motivated to do the work – that’s just how life goes. But that’s when your system kicks in and forces action.
It drives you through the dips in motivation.
It doesn’t have to be complicated. You don’t need a million tools. You just need to follow it and get results.
How to Build Your Own Productivity System:
I’m one of those guys that likes to try everything out for myself first. Sometimes this works in my favor. In this case, it did not. It took a lot longer for me to come up with something that worked without all the bells and whistles.
I eventually pieced together my productivity system over the course of several years. I, too, was entrenched in the idea of newer, cooler, super awesome time-saving hacks and tools. Over time, my interest in keeping up with those tricks died.
Just like my plummeting interest in Pokemon Go.
My current productivity system is what’s been left after lots of experimentation and fat-trimming.
Because I love all of you so much, I’ve broken down my system into a series of easy-to-follow steps so that you can build your own.
That said, this is meant to be more of a guideline than the Gospel. Your productivity system should be a perfect reflection of you and your quirks, not mine.
As I like to say, be an engineer, not a scientist.
Let’s dive in.
Step 1: Identify What You Are Trying to Achieve
If you were going on a road trip, what’s the first thing you would do to map out your travels?
…you’d start with the destination.
The destination is what drives the decisions that you make along the way. Every turn and every road that you choose should bring you one step closer to your end point.
Same goes for productivity – any good productivity system starts with whatever results or goal that you are trying to achieve. Try this exercise for coming up with a rock-solid goal:
- Define a goal and set a deadline (ie. Make your goals SMART)
“I want to grow my blog to 1,000 email subscribers in 3 months.”
- Define how much time you can work on it
“I can spend 2 hours per day working on this.”
For me, I’m working on growing this blog on the side while working full time.
What’s the case for you? It might be…
- Also growing a blog
- Starting & operating some other side hustle
- Gaining muscle or losing weight
- Getting more work done to impress your boss
- Pretty much anything
Once you know what you’re striving for and your time constraints, it makes it that much easier to define what you have to do to get there.
Step 2: Identify Your Most Important Tasks
At this point, nearly everybody knows the 80/20 rule – Pareto’s Principle – for getting stuff done. 80 % of your results come from 20% of the work. Thank you Tim Ferriss for ingraining this in all of our heads.
With your sights set on a particular goal or result, next you need to define the most important tasks (aka the 20%) that get you there efficiently.
For me, the most important tasks I have for growing a blog can be boiled down to:
- Writing articles
- Promoting those articles
As an additional example, for someone trying to gain muscle, eating lots of food and lifting weights are probably their most important tasks.
Whatever your case, identify the 2-3 most important tasks that you need to do to achieve your desired result. To make things easy, ask yourself this question:
“What are the core tasks that I have to do to [insert your desired result here]?”
E.g. What are the core tasks that I have to do to grow my blog?
I could probably get away with not doing anything on social media and still grow my blog, but there’s no way I could do it without writing articles (or creating at least some form of content). That’s how I know it’s one of my most important tasks.
Jot yours down onto a piece of paper and hang onto them.
We’re going to need those bad boys in just a few minutes.
Step 3: Create a High Level Monthly Plan
Here is where the productivity system starts to take shape.
In this step, you’re going to use your goal and most important tasks to create a high level plan for your first month.
I use Google Calendar to plan out my life, so it only makes sense for me to use it here, too. In an ideal week, here is what my calendar looks like for achieving my goals:
I decided that in order to achieve my desired number of email subscribers, I need to publish at least 2 articles a month on The Monk Life, and 1 guest post each week on a higher traffic website.
If your goal is different, then your monthly plan obviously shouldn’t look the same as mine. For example, if you’re trying to build 10 pounds of muscle in 6 months, your first month might include lifting weights 3 days per week (Mon/Wed/Fri) in 1 hour sessions.
Unfortunately, I can’t tell you exactly how to set up your plan. Depending on your goal, you’ll have to do some research and determine what the best course of action is for you. The good news is that this step doesn’t have to be perfect. Later on, I’ll teach you how to adjust it as you go.
Step 4: Choose a Method for Prioritizing Daily Tasks
We’ve got our high level plan together. We know exactly what needs done and when it needs done by, now we just have to work on our most important tasks, right?
In an ideal world, we would always work on our most important tasks every day.
But we don’t live in an ideal world, we live in THIS world. You likely have other work or personal life obligations that need to be taken care of. I, for one, am glad that tax season is just about over.
Your productivity system needs to account for fluctuating priorities on a daily basis.
So, how should you go about doing it?
My strategy comes from the Ivy Lee Method talked about by habits expert James Clear. I’ve adapted it and implemented it into my own life by using 3×5 notecards.
If you read the story, the Notecard Strategy was good enough for the executives of Bethlehem Steel Corporation. So much so that Charles Schwab, the company’s president, wrote Ivy Lee a check for $25,000…for a simple productivity tip.
After finding out Noah Kagan from OkDork.com used it too, well, I figured it would definitely be good enough for me, too.
The strategy itself is simple. It turns out that a highly productive day actually starts the night before.
- Take 10-15 minutes each night to review your goals and to-do’s for the following day. Ask yourself this question: “what are the things that absolutely HAVE to get done on this day?” Make a mental list then move onto the next bullet.
- Choose 3-5 top priority items that you want to accomplish. More often than not, you’ll want your most important tasks from Step 2 to take precedence. Here is where you’ll also be breaking those down into specific actions/tasks. Those tasks should be clear, concise, and take no more than 45 minutes to an hour. I’ve found that 3 to 5 well-defined tasks is usually all that we can effectively do in a day. Any more than that and energy, focus, and quality of work become real problems. A good example of a well-defined task would be “complete intro and first section of productivity system blog post”.
- List them in order of importance on a notecard for you to look at and carry around with you the next day. This forces you to prioritize your small list of tasks and creates a game plan for the next morning.
- The following morning, start with the top task and work on it until complete. Then move to the next. By design, this method helps you knock out the important tasks first thing in the morning. I’ll usually knock out the first couple tasks, take a break, go to meetings, then come back to my notecard and start working again.
I’ve found the Notecard Strategy to be so effective because it: forces me to review my goals and tasks on a daily basis, gives me a clear list of actions for me to work from, and most importantly, I can wake up the next morning and get right to work – I don’t have to waste mental energy thinking about what I should be doing.
As an engineer with a side hustle, you’ll notice that my tasks are defined by the most important things in the 3 aspects of my life:
- Growing my blog
I always make sure I have at least one from each area to maintain progress every day.
If you want, grab some of your own notecards here from Amazon. At the time of this post, they’re like $6 for 300 (with free Prime shipping). That’s almost an entire year’s worth.
Side note: Now is when you’re probably thinking, “This is 2017. What about software and apps like Asana? Who the heck still uses pen and paper?”
I tried using tools like Asana, MeisterTask, and Trello, but they just weren’t for me. I’d start off using them every day for a couple of weeks, then eventually getting tired of updating them.
I felt like those tools were an extra step in the process for me. I eventually realized that I was still physically writing down my important tasks anyways, so I just cut them out of my system all together.
Ultimately, the choice is up to you. If electronic task management works better for you, then go for it.
Step 5: Schedule Time to Work on Your Specific Tasks
In my habits guide, I talk a lot about making time for your goals.
Since I use my calendar for everything – you guessed it – I plug my specific tasks in there as well.
You can see how my calendar is built over top of my weekly plan.
If you’re reluctant to actually do this step, think about why you use a calendar for anything. What’s the point of putting a doctor’s appointment on there?
DUH! It’s so that you:
- Remember that you have something important to do
- Actually go do that thing!
Your tasks, like your appointments need a time and place to live so that you’ll actually do them too, but for some reason, so many people neglect scheduling time for their most important work.
If you have a day job, things are pretty easy for you. You likely have a good idea of when you’ll be working, when you can take your lunch, when to take your 20 minute shit, and so on.
You won’t necessarily need to schedule a specific task like “outline a blog post”. It’s already on your notecard from the night before, so you can just start plowing your way through the list whenever it’s time for work.
Side note – As a general word of advice, motivation and energy levels are highest during the morning hours. If you can, plan to schedule your important work as early as possible. Decision fatigue is real and as the day drags on, you’ll feel less drive to get things done.
Step 6: Manage Your Distractions
We’ve all experienced the irresistible urge to check social media when you’re supposed to be doing work.
Anybody who tries telling you otherwise is full of crap.
An effective productivity system plans for things like this.
Here’s how I minimize distractions so that I can stay fully focused on my work:
- Have a dedicated space for work. When I step into my office and sit down in my chair, I know it’s time to get down to business.
- Keep that workspace free of clutter. Messy desk, messy brain. It creates much more stress than you probably realize.
- Have a dedicated computer for work. I used to have a ton of different games, including League of Legends and Hearthstone, on my laptop. I’ve since uninstalled them and fully dedicated the laptop for work. It’s helped a ton.
- I make a cup of coffee. Similar to having a dedicated space for work, this gets me in the right mindset. “OK, boss. Time to get shit done.”
- Put on a short list of Spotify songs, without lyrics, on a loop. The music puts me in the zone and helps drown out any external stimuli.
- Turn OFF notifications on my phone. Ain’t nobody got time fo’ that.
- I keep Google Chrome open and only for research. I have been disciplined enough to resist the social media urge. There are plenty of site blockers and extensions that you can use to do that for you though.
Feel free to use any of those listed to help manage your distractions. If you have other awesome ideas of your own, I’d love to hear them. Send me a message here or comment below this post.
Step 7: Do the Effing Work
I’ve learned exactly 2 things by consuming thousands of hours’ worth of information online:
- Nothing gets done unless you actually do the work.
- If you create something worth talking about, people will help do some of that work for you.
There are no tricks or shortcuts to achieving success. All-stars like Tim Ferriss, Ramit Sethi, and Bryan Harris, know this. They’ve built empires on the foundation of helping others, and most importantly, they did the work to get there.
It took me way too fucking long to figure this out. I kept searching the internet, trying to find something that, I guess, would build a passive income stream for me. Wasn’t gonna happen.
So I buckled down, started writing every day, and lo-and-behold, I started achieving my goals.
I like to do my important work first thing in the morning. The day hasn’t yet beaten me down, and I’m surging with energy and focus.
I’d like to tell you that I have a fancy trick or tool to sitting down and knocking out tasks. I don’t. I manage my distractions, then get right to it.
If you need something, the Pomodoro Technique is a popular method for getting work done. Set a timer for 25 minutes, work until the buzzer, break for 5, then start it up again.
I tried it but found it more of a hassle than an improvement. It just didn’t work for me.
I feel that if you’ve done a good job defining your tasks into 45-60 minute actions, everything works itself out without any extra tools required.
But alas, to each his/her own.
Step 8: Use a Brain Dumpster
As a kid, I used to nag my mom about using grocery lists.
“Why do you need a list, mom? I can remember everything on there without having to write it down.”
First off – mom, I’m so sorry for being a brat.
Second, holy shit. I get it.
Looking back, I had maybe 2 major responsibilities growing up:
- Don’t poop the bed.
- Enjoy being a kid.
No wonder I had all that extra space to remember stupid things like what to buy for groceries.
As an adult, with goals, a job, taxes to pay, and chores to do, I need as much headspace as I can get.
That’s why I use Evernote as a dumpster for my brain. There are lots of other note-taking tools out there. This is just the one that works for me.
- It syncs across all my devices.
- It’s free.
- It’s incredibly easy to take notes and retrieve them.
I mainly use Evernote for capturing ideas, to-do’s, or articles that I can’t focus on at that moment. This lets me concentrate on the task at hand while not having to worry about remembering my idea for later.
A couple of key tips if you choose to use Evernote:
- Don’t make it complicated with your Notebooks. I only have 2-3.
- Instead, use tags to make finding things either. Add those tags to your shortcuts. Again, I keep it fairly lean here.
Step 9: Plan & Adjust
Now you’ve got a high level plan and specific tasks to work on each day, and you’ve even got a dumpster to catch all your extras.
So, after the first week, how did it go?
Did you get everything you wanted done? E.g. Published 1 article for The Monk Life and 1 guest post
If so, did it produce the results you were expecting? E.g. How many email subscribers did that net me?
If you got what you aiming for, then your next move is simple: DO MORE OF THAT! Your upcoming week should be just like your successful one.
If you didn’t get what you were hoping for, what could you have done differently?
Maybe you didn’t hit your weekly marks. Maybe you did, and it didn’t turn out as well as you’d expected. Perhaps you need to do some more homework and revamp your strategy.
You should be monitoring your results on a weekly and monthly basis so that you can adjust your plan accordingly to stay on track. Doing this helps to keep the bigger picture in mind, which makes the day to day grind a little more enjoyable.
Side note – I also use my Sunday night planning sessions to incorporate notes from Evernote into my priorities, as needed.
Putting It All Together
It really doesn’t get much more old school than this.
Google Calendar and Evernote are the two electronic tools I use to keep my productivity system running smoothly. No matter what I’m working on, these are the staples I keep going back to.
For my specific goal of acquiring more email subscribers, I also created a goal tracking/content plan spreadsheet to organize my weekly publishing schedule. I’m actually working on a separate post to help you create your own, if interested. Stay tuned.
If you find that you need something like that too, then by all means, go for it.
Other than that, most other stuff I just don’t need or can do effectively with good ol’ pen and paper.
At the end of the day, any lean productivity system comes down to:
- Identifying your priorities
- Getting the work done
- Reviewing and adjusting
Anything that doesn’t help one of those 3 principles probably doesn’t need to be there.
Ready to create your own?
Get out there and show me how it’s done.