Do You Trust Your Productivity System?

Cal Newport, author of Study Hacks an excellent student productivity blog, offered an interesting idea to me in a recent conversation:

More important than the type of productivity system you use is that you trust it. Nothing is worse that the people who attempt to follow a plan, and then (either in anxiety or guilt) botch the plan and go back to the chaos of non-stop semi-work.

I’m paraphrasing from our conversation, but hopefully I’ve captured the gist of what Cal wanted to express to me. Another way to put it is, instead of worrying about whether you have the best plan constantly, it’s more important that you simply stick to a plan. Because most plans will work better than the haphazard chaos that is the default working strategy for most people.

The Plan is Useless, The Planning is Priceless

How many students do you know that start with a plan to study an hour every day on a particular subject, but then end up studying sporadically until they eventually have to put everything into one epic cram session 72 hours before the test?

How many people do you know who commit to answering email once per day, but then answer 2 or 3 times when something “important” comes up?

How many people commit to working eight hour days, but end up in a perpetual state of semi-work, because the balance between exhaustion and guilt oscillate them between working lightly and wasting time on low-productivity tasks?

A lot of productivity systems break down because of one problem: the system works, but nobody fully commits to the system. I’ve seen people regain immense amounts of free-time and stress from their life by adopting a productivity system. But the truth is, it doesn’t seem to matter much which system they choose. Almost any conceivable intelligent system outperforms chaos.

My drug of choice is keeping Weekly and Daily Goals. Each day, write a to-do list for tomorrow. Your day ends when you finish that list. Once the list is done, you can’t do any more work. Repeat with your weekly goals on a weekly scale. On the surface it sounds technical, but most of the rules are designed to keep me from overworking and ensure that I don’t switch to perpetual semi-work.

But, my friend Cal has a completely different system. He advocates a strict 8-hour time limit on his day. This prevents his work pressures from overrunning into his family life. Leo Babauta keeps a short list of Most Important Tasks to work on exclusively at the beginning of each day.

The systems are different in how they attempt to get work finished and reduce the pressures from work. But, the common denominator is actually following the system. If Cal decided to frequently break his 8-hour work rule and work all hours of the night, the system can’t work. Same if Leo decided to start each day with unimportant tasks and leave his MITs to the end. Or if I allowed myself to continually increase my daily goals throughout the day.

Instead of Finding the Perfect System, Find a System You Can Stick To

Productivity junkies are often perfectionists. Unfortunately, that means pursuing, reading about and seeking the ideal system or combination of tricks to form the ideal work routine. But, this approach often fails because they pick systems that are too difficult to follow.

Instead of finding the perfect system, just find one you can stick to. I believe the difference between chaos and any reasonable productivity scheme is far greater than the distance between different systems. And, if you can’t follow the system you’ve created, it’s worthless.

The Simplest Plans are the Best Ones

I think the best productivity systems are the simplest. Not because they are ideal in organizing, but because they are the easiest to stick to (usually). My productivity system involves only three rules:

  1. At the end of each week, create a list of goals for that week.
  2. At the end of each day, create a daily to-do list from your weekly goals.
  3. After you finish your daily to-do list, you’re done for the day.

It isn’t perfect, but I’ve found it is relatively easy to stick to. The drawbacks can be, if you feel masochistic, you can create impossibly hard daily goals lists that are too difficult to finish. Or, if you plan improperly you may work more on some days than on others.

But, I’ve watched myself the few times I’ve occasionally fell off the wagon and stopped using the system for a few days or a week. Immediately, I get less work done and, paradoxically, I also feel more stressed because I feel the impulse to work all the time. The benefits of having a system, any system, tend to outweigh the costs.

An ideal system should: force you to focus on work when you need to work, and allow you to relax when you need to relax. Possibly add on the ability to organize your workload if it’s complex, and that’s all you need in a system. Anything else is often unnecessary or potentially harmful if you aren’t already a master at a simpler system.


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