How to be Productive? — Time Management and Organisational Skills

When it comes to time man­age­ment, organ­i­sa­tion­al skills and plain old doing stuff there are a ton of pithy say­ings out there: ‘to fin­ish first you first have to fin­ish’, ‘to do what you need to do, you need to know what not to do’ etcetera etcetera. Indeed it seems some­times that there are almost as many method­olo­gies for doing things, as there are pithy say­ings, and things to be done. Welcome to the Friday ‘the­o­ry’ por­tion of the skills posts.

Overall the huge breadth of books and mate­r­i­al on the top­ic can eas­i­ly lead to analy­sis paral­y­sis. I have a friend who I think has prob­a­bly read every book that there is going on pro­duc­tiv­i­ty and man­age­ment and all the cook­ie cut­ter approach­es, but still is absolute­ly hope­less at actu­al­ly set­tling down and doing things. So what is there to do about pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, do we sim­ply adopt one method­ol­o­gy and hope it works, or swap and change between them at will? Well in many ways either of those options would be bet­ter than noth­ing, as usu­al­ly going about our lives in a hap­haz­ard man­ner only leads to get­ting snip­pets of jobs done and over­all low­er pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. But there are some sys­tems that are bet­ter than others.

I must admit here, I don’t fol­low any one sys­tem, but rather adopt lit­tle pieces of each of them. I like the list mak­ing approach from GTD, but hate that it com­mon­ly ends up in swathes of lists with­out any action. I like some of the Seven Habits, from Stephen Covey, but find that a lot of the time they don’t real­ly lead any­where and you can end up like a guinea pig on a tread­mill. So on and so forth. However, last year I read a book that sought to syn­the­sise many of the dif­fer­ent meth­ods and come up with anoth­er sys­tem, the book is What’s Best Next by Matt Perman. It approach­es things from a Christian per­spec­tive, anchor­ing the­o­ry in the Gospel, but I think it is equal­ly as rel­e­vant to a sec­u­lar endeav­our and sec­u­lar peo­ple. Again, I don’t adopt his entire struc­ture point by point, but I think his over­all archi­tec­ture works quite well.

He has organ­ised his method around four aspects: Define, Architect, Reduce, Execute; and yes they make a cheesy acronym: DARE. Now each of those is split up into a whole bunch of sub cat­e­gories and meth­ods, which I won’t repro­duce here in whole because they would essen­tial­ly be pla­gia­rism. However, I think the four work fair­ly well as an over­all archi­tec­ture, and this is how I use them.

Define: I have a series of goals, both short­er and longer term. For exam­ple a long term goal is to do with work­ing in Theological Academia, while a short term goal is to fin­ish the papers I want to sub­mit for a con­fer­ence. These are writ­ten down, because if they are mere­ly float­ing about in the ether then they become over­ly flu­id and change­able. I gen­er­al­ly revis­it my longer term goals (more than a year) every year between Christmas and New Years. While I main­tain my short­er term goals and tick them off as I go, and refresh these goals reg­u­lar­ly. Longer term goals tend to be not­ed in a jour­nal or note tak­ing app. While short­er term goals are put into a task man­ag­er; more on those in the tools post on Monday. Having goals helps with know­ing where the fin­ish line is, rather than wan­der­ing aim­less­ly around. Plus it assists in reward based moti­va­tion and management.

whatsnextcatArchitect: Having a child has taught me that rou­tine is rel­a­tive­ly impor­tant. When I was at uni for my under­grad I gen­er­al­ly just worked when I felt like it, and com­mon­ly pushed myself so hard for sev­er­al months at a time that I would just col­lapse dur­ing hol­i­days. Now while I still am capa­ble of push­ing that hard, it is actu­al­ly far more effec­tive to archi­tect a rou­tine for myself so that things get done at a good rate through­out the week, month and year rather than being in spurts and starts. To do that I have rough­ly mudmapped out my week. From the sim­ple things such as the days I am at home with the lit­tle man, my research slots, through to rough­ly where the admin for work, col­lege and church fits in. It is best to start with the big items first, that way you know there will be time for doing them. I tend to have things at a rel­a­tive­ly high lev­el, in blocks rather than to spe­cif­ic times, as this works well for me with change­able pat­terns with the lit­tle man. Others I know have a lot more set times, down to the hour or half hour. You will need to fig­ure out what works for you. As well as plan­ning the week, it is good to plan ahead for a 3 or 6 month block, so that things like hol­i­days and oth­er dead­lines don’t creep up unawares. Tools for doing this include cal­en­dar­ing apps and task man­agers, which in apt tim­ing will be cov­ered on Monday.

Reduce: The third aspect of Perman’s approach is sim­ply reduce. Cut out the things that are not pro­duc­tive in any fash­ion. It may be that for you sit­ting down and watch­ing some TV is cathar­tic and helps you relax, I know it does for Gill. But if watch­ing 5 episodes of your favourite TV show each night is caus­ing time issues because things aren’t get­ting done, then per­haps its time to reduce a bit. Ultimately its up to you how much you reduce and lean out your week. But one thing to con­sid­er is how you can mul­ti­task with your time. If you take pub­lic trans­port to wher­ev­er you do your work then con­sid­er read­ing or doing some oth­er work on that trip. Or if you walk then per­haps a rel­e­vant pod­cast you have want­ed to lis­ten to. This is a good way of help­ing you reduce with­out hav­ing to com­plete­ly remove the things you are work­ing on. Just make sure when you are reduc­ing you aren’t elim­i­nat­ing the big things you need to get done.

AFieldGuideToProcrastinators-4366Execute: This is prob­a­bly the eas­i­est stage. You have some time set aside, now do the things you have tasked to do… and don’t pro­cras­ti­nate about it. While there are a bunch of dif­fer­ent meth­ods for doing tasks, such as read­ing or writ­ing, and I’ll cov­er some tech­nique to make these eas­i­er lat­er in the series, ulti­mate­ly its down to just doing the tasks. There are some tools that can make this eas­i­er, such as good task man­agers, the Pomodoro tech­nique, and apps to assist with self con­trol and defeat pro­cras­ti­na­tion, and I’ll cov­er those on Monday as well.

So how do we be pro­duc­tive? Well its not entire­ly by fol­low­ing a series of steps and rules. I have out­lined a high lev­el method above, which comes from Matt Perman’s book, that I high­ly rec­om­mend you get a copy of and read. But ulti­mate­ly you need to adapt it to your own life. Perhaps a good piece of home­work is to sit down and do the D‑A-R‑E method­ol­o­gy and see where you end up.

I would love to hear in the com­ments your own tech­niques for the over­ar­ch­ing method­ol­o­gy you use.

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