Productivity by Number, part 1

That it is possible to look busy without accomplishing much, and that correct prioritization is necessary for true productivity, are ideas which are pretty universally accepted – and, I suspect, nearly as universally confusing.

For years I struggled with the Steven Covey Four-Quadrant system.

If you have 10 urgent things, and some of them need to happen soon so various projects can move forward, but some of them were handed down by your boss, which ones are  1: urgent and important, and which ones are just 3: urgent? Or are they all urgent and important, and in that case, which do you do first? And at what point do the neglected 2: important projects become urgent, even though they have no time deadline attached, simply because they never rank highly enough to get done otherwise?

I spent years trying to use that system and just feeling bewildered.

It probably works very well for some people – evidently it worked for Covey, or he wouldn’t have written a book about it – but what I’ve realized is that no system will work for everyone. It’s only recently that I’ve gotten noticeably closer to finding mine.

Step 1: Getting Things Done

I wrote a post about this one last year. It’s a wonderfully simple and intuitive system (when you want to get organized, the first thing you want to do is figure out everything you have to do, right?), but I found it too overwhelming to keep a running to-do list that started at 50 items and multiplied faster than I could cross them off.

I’ve pretty much abandoned this system – except that I do add every “I’d like to do that someday” idea to my low-priority task list at work.  Because I’m not adding it to the list with any expectation of really getting to it, at least not in the plan-able future, it doesn’t add the sense of pressure that the master list did.

Step 2: The Agile System

About six months ago I discovered the Agile System.

A few of the bits I pulled out and placed in a recurring task:

Monday Vision         On Mondays, simply identify three outcomes – compelling results – you’d like for the week. If you’ve established what your Hot Spots are, use them for input.

Daily Outcomes         At the start of each day, identify three compelling outcomes you want to accomplish. Use your three outcomes for the week from your Monday Vision as input. You may have a laundry list of tasks, but for your Daily Outcomes, identify the three most important things you can accomplish for that day. You use these three outcomes to help you prioritize all of your tasks and focus on results. If you complete your three key outcomes for the day, you can always bite off more. Whenever you ask yourself what’s the next best thing for you to do, your three outcomes should guide your answer.

Focus on outcomes, not activities or tasks. Consider what you can reasonably accomplish and what would be the most valuable. “If this were Friday, what are the three most important results I want to show?” and, “What would be the most pain if it weren’t done by Friday?”

I still use this one – a little bit. The quotes I found particularly compelling live in a recurring task so that it pops up early each morning, and (most days) I take a minute to write down my top priorities for the day.

Again, every system works differently for each person. It took some experimenting to make this one helpful; strangely, I found it overwhelming when the day’s tasks were listed vertically with the week’s goals at the top, but listing them horizontally is fine. And for a while I was more likely to accomplish my priorities if I started by listing only two; perhaps because I’m still getting used to prioritization, three can be distracting.

Step 3: RescueTime

A chance mention on a blog I read put me on the trail of this free/cheap online app. Basically, it plants a cookie on your computer, tracks how much time you spend on whichever window is on top, assigns a score to every program and website you use, and spits out a number that represents your overall Productivity.

You can also create Projects and the system will record time spent on them. This could be useful if, for instance, you wanted to show your boss that a low-level administrative task is taking an inordinate amount of your time and that you need support.

It’s not perfect; I’m not always convinced it calculates properly, and I wish it would be more granular. For instance, you can only assign one productivity score to each program or website as a whole. Well, obviously, some emails are quite productive and can be the main means of completing a project, while others are not as important, or can even be tools of procrastination – but there is no way of differentiating this in the RescueTime system, so two days that were spent on opposite ends of the email productivity spectrum will score exactly the same.

Still, it’s a great tool for auditing and competing with yourself – especially if you’re honest about scoring activities. I’ve also created a Project called “Break” so I know exactly how much work time I’m not spending on work and can improve that.

Continue to part 2.

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