You Don’t Need Productivity Tools, You Need a Productivity System

September 4, 2017 Strategy 0

Productivity tools are prevalent nowadays. Just a quick search in Google for the word “productivity tools” and you’ll get 17 million results.

I’m pretty sure some brand names are already running around your head. But I’m not here to talk about productivity tools. The primary reason is that they are not the answer to your quest to be more productive.

Productivity Tools Are Not the Answer

Today, in 2017, productivity tools are mostly associated with software and technology. And a lot of times, when people use these tools or read about productivity, they equate the tool with productivity.

However, that is simply not the case.

If you want to be more productive, you don't need productivity tools; rather, you need a system. Click To Tweet

In fact, believing that by using a productivity tool will make you productive is a very dangerous thing to believe in.

And that is also the primary reason why a lot of people, despite using these productivity tools, are not more productive. On the contrary, they seem to be more unproductive.

So, they give up on the tool, blame it for not working, and go back to their old ways.

Look, this happens to everyone. Happened to me a LOT of times. Not all tools are right for us.

People who use productivity tools without understanding the underlying principles behind the “tool” will almost always fail.

In its simplest form, productivity is about accomplishing things.

The more you accomplish something, the more you feel productive.

And I’ll argue that you have to accomplish the right things too! Because at the end of the day, if you simply accomplish all the minor tasks and never got to the big important one, then would you consider yourself still productive? But, let’s talk about that another time.

If you want to be more productive, you don’t need productivity tools; rather, you need a productivity system.

To Be Productive, You Need a Productivity System

A productivity system is a set of processes or activities you do. Most productivity tools are based on these productivity systems.

If you haven’t distinguished them, here’s a table listing some samples of each:

Productivity System Productivity Tool
Getting Things Done OmniFocus
Pomodoro Technique Reminders

Enough about that, I’d like to share my own productivity system that helped me get over the slump of unproductiveness.

How Do You Become Productive

Here’s what you need:

  • Email. You already have this so no need to expand further
  • Calendar. If you’re part of an organization or have an email, there’s almost always a calendar that comes with it.
  • Reading List. As a professional, you’re expected to learn and improve your knowledge and skills. This is done by reading as opposed to waiting for the organization to send you to that “training”
  • Task Management Tool. This can be a simple notebook and pen, a fancy software, or just the built-in reminders in your iPhone

If it's not on your calendar, it's not important. #productivity Click To Tweet

Preparatory Points

Before I share my productivity hack, you need to think differently about the tools I mentioned above.

Let me briefly explain:

  1. Email is a communication tool, not a storage of tasks. So don’t store tasks and to-do’s in your email by marking as unread or not reading til you get to it. It just doesn’t work. If you do that, I can bet a bag of doritos that you have a lot of email you haven’t read yet and just sitting there for weeks!
  2. Calendar is where you place stuff you need to do within a specified time period, not just meetings. Based from the number of people I shared this idea with, this is the biggest shift in mindset you need to do. Think of it this way: if it’s not on your calendar, it’s not important.
  3. That said, you need to have a reading list and a task management tool.

Now that that’s covered, let’s dig in. Here’s how my productivity system works

  1. Apply the Getting Things Done (GTD) framework
  2. Put important tasks in the calendar
  3. Email 3x a day for 30-minute increments
  4. Put all references to a reading list
  5. Put all action items in a task management tool
  6. Follow your calendar

1) Apply the GTD Framework

GTD is a stress-free productivity system developed by David Allen. It’s actually one of the two books I always recommend every professional read. I won’t discuss it here, but please read more about it. It’ll change your life.

If you haven’t already, you can get a copy of the book here on Amazon: Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity

More about this in item 5 below.

2) Put important tasks in your calendar

This is a no-brainer. We all have limited time in a single day. If you don’t schedule time to work on your commitments and priorities, you won’t finish them.

You already know this concept. If it’s really important, you make time for it.

That way, you don’t ask yourself in July, “where did the year go?” And when you look back at your goals and projects, you’re not even halfway there.

The primary reason is that you didn’t allocate time to work on them. Yes, stuff happens — new projects, resignations, life events. That’s just part of modern, professional organizational life.

Whatever those projects and goals are, break them down into monthly and weekly goals. Then, put in at least two 90-minute blocks of time in your calendar to work on them each week. That way, you’re guaranteed to make progress.

For example, I recently started full-time as a consultant. That said, one of my biggest priorities right now is to grow my own practice — business development. I have blocked out in my calendar five 90-minute increments throughout the week to make sure I prospect, meet with potential clients, etc. during these times.

When a prospect requests a meeting, I give out these times because it’s the time I allotted for business development.

Of course, when I hit my goal already, this will all change. But until that point comes, I make sure I put the time in my calendar for me to work on these activities.

3) Email 3x a day at 30-minute increments

We all complain about email. But we’re not doing anything about it. So, stop whining and do something about it.

Schedule three 30-minute increments on your calendar from Monday to Friday that says “Email”.

Do nothing else except email during this session.

Here’s how you do it, following the preparatory point I made:

Your email is a communication tool. It’s not supposed to hold tasks for you. Nor should it contain your reading list.

So, when you process your email, do it this way instead:

  • If there’s a deliverable for you, move it to your task management system
  • If there’s a deliverable for your team (say you’re a manager), add again to your waiting list (you’ll process this differently later — if you read GTD, you already know this goes to a Waiting For list)
  • If it’s a newsletter or a memo or anything you need to read, if you see scroll bars add to your reading list. If there are none, and would only take roughly less than 2 minutes, go ahead and read it. Then, delete it afterward.
  • If it’s an ongoing communication, say a negotiation with a supplier or client, reply if needed. If nothing is required from you (no task, no waiting for) just archive it.
  • If it contains a file for review like a report, download it then delete the email (or archive if you can’t let go). Then depending on what you need to do with the report, you can either add it to your reading list or add a block of time to work on it on your calendar.

I believe you get the gist. Email is a communication tool. If there is a task, put it in your task management system. If you need to read something, add to your reading list.

Your email is a communication tool. It's not supposed to hold tasks for you. Nor should it contain your reading list. Click To Tweet

As an added bonus, if you’re not using rules or labels, learn more about how to use them. That way, you can add a level of prioritization because you won’t get through all your emails in one go (especially if you have hundreds or thousands right now.

If you have some sort of prioritization, it will look something like this: your boss’ emails comes first. Then your direct reports if you have them. Then your peers. Then others.

This isn’t black and white.

If you’re a customer rep, then your priorities should be the customer emails. Use your judgment. The important lesson here is to not spend your entire day doing email and to stop using it as a task list and a reading list.

Using that same process, here’s how I handle my email:

When the time comes for email, I open my mail client and go through it from the first email at the top. Since I’m an individual consultant, my priority list is my clients. They are highlighted in green. So if I see green, I get to those first. If there are none, i just go down the list.

If I see newsletters I am subscribed to, like Manager Tools, Medium, WordStream, Moz, HubSpot, etc., I go through it one-by-one. Each newsletter is usually a series of articles about a topic. What I do is browse through the headlines. If I find it interesting, I save it to Pocket. Once I finish the newsletter, I delete it and move on to the next email.

If there is an on-going conversation, I reply if I need to (like say a quick thanks). Then, if there are no actions needed, I delete it. Because if they reply, it will come up anyway.

If there is a task that I need to do, for example, a client approved a project, I forward that email to a “secret email address” in OmniFocus. This goes into my inbox. I then process that later on.

4) Your Reading List

I currently use Pocket. I don’t know why I didn’t use it before because i can’t live without it right now.

It allows you to store stuff you want to read in a single place. So, regardless which device I’m on right now, my iPhone or my laptop, I can simply “Add to Pocket” and it’s going to be on all my devices.

And, for example, I finish reading 7 articles on my iPhone and I archive them (to mark as read), when I open my laptop, it gets cleared out there as well.

I have a scheduled 1-hour every day on my calendar to “Clear Out Pocket.” What that means is I go through as much stuff I have inside my reading queue. I don’t pick which article to read. I simply go through it from top-to-bottom, just like my email.

This is already a filtered list. What that means is at a certain point in the past, I made a decision that I find this article/video useful, so I will read it. So I don’t need to pick any or do some sorting. I read everything on that list.

And I’ll be honest. I haven’t cleared out my reading list. But that’s OK. My goal is to learn each day. To stay updated with my industry.

If I really need to read something, I can always allot time in my calendar or just read it now.

5) Task Management System

I use OmniFocus. They have a desktop app and an iOS app.

Before, I simply used the reminders app from Apple.

It doesn’t matter what you use. If you’re comfortable with a notebook and a pen, go ahead. I am also a practitioner of the Bullet Journal. That is also another productivity system.

The point here is to have a single repository of all projects and the accompanying deliverables you owe and what other people owe you.

Again, if you haven’t read Getting Things Done, I highly recommend you do so. Here are some highlights from the book that you can apply now:

  • You have an “inbox” of stuff. Everything goes here.
  • You then process this inbox to determine if that stuff is actionable or not
  • Figure out what the next physical action is
  • A project is defined as two or more tasks needed

Here’s a flowchart of the entire GTD system:

6) Follow your calendar

This has got to be the hardest thing to do.

But being more productive doesn’t mean it’s easy. And, really, all it takes is to follow your calendar.

If you allotted time to work on your priorities (point 2), then you don’t have to worry about surprises mid-year and year-end. You already know you’re working on the most important projects and you get to check its progress weekly.

If you have a way to clear out your email (point 3) and use it effectively, you won’t have to worry about missing tasks and important messages.

If you have a way to learn and increase your knowledge and skills daily (point 4), you’ll be one step ahead of your peers who don’t invest in personal growth.

Finally, if you have a system to capture all work that needs to be done and what other people owe you, you be able to stay on top of everything you’re working on (point 5).

The best part, you’ll be perceived as being on top of those projects. You’ll be more productive.

Also, this gives you another benefit. If you are using your calendar wisely, you don’t have to worry about what to do next. Just look at it and it tells you what you need to do at any given time. This frees up a lot of creative energy.

It’s also the reason why when we all feel overwhelmed, we stop and jot things down. We then assign priorities on what to do next, then just work on that. (On a sidenote, that’s actually the GTD framework. So again, get a copy and read it).

One last thing: earlier I mentioned about processing the inbox in my OmniFocus. I have a daily 30-minute block on my calendar to “empty my inbox.” What I do

What I do during this time is look at the inbox in my OmniFocus (remember, here is where I send my tasks to) and process it. What I mean by processing is I go through the GTD framework. I determine if it’s actionable. If it is, is it a project or a single item? Does it take roughly 2 minutes or less, if yes, I do it. If not, I put it in my calendar. So on and so forth.

This processing doesn’t take long once you get the hang of the GTD system. It’s like any other skill. Once you do it often, it enters in your subconscious and you don’t think about it.

So, What Are You Going to Do Next

You don’t need productivity tools. Don’t buy into the hype that you’ll be more productive if you buy or use this new productivity tool. You need a productivity system if you want to be productive. Once you have one, find the productivity tool to complement that.

Let me know if this helps. If you have questions, feel free to ask in the comment section. And, I’d like to know what tools and systems you are using and how has it helped you become more productive.


Disclosure: Please note that some of the links above are affiliate links, and at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you decide to make a purchase after clicking through the link. Please understand that I have experienced all these companies, and I recommend them because they are helpful and useful, not because of the small commissions I make if you decide to buy something through my links. Please do not spend any money on these products unless you feel you need them or that they will help you achieve your goals.


Also published on Medium.

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