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Think You’ve Tried Every Productivity System?

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System integration concept

This is a guest post by Benjamin Brandall, the head of content marketing at Process Street, a workflow app for creating personal and business systems that help you get more done. Get in touch with him over on his personal blog.


I’ve spent the past year studying productivity and writing about my journey. I’ve tried other people’s systems. I’ve read hundreds of tips, hacks, workarounds, and even one weird trick. I could waste your time by reeling them off, but I think the internet is full of that already.

The only thing I learned from the productivity content around is that what makes a solution worthwhile is whether you can adapt it to your life.

Still, I learned plenty of important lessons before my sudden realization I was doing myself no good trying to adopt every element of a system without making little edits. I’m going to share them with you here, not so you can take them away and start implementing them, but so you can start to get an eye for how to adjust productivity systems to the way your brain works.

Harnessing the Science Behind Systems to Get More Done

Since I didn’t start consciously noticing my own systems until I got into The Productivity Show, I’m going to start with a quote from AE about what a system is:

“Everything is a system … It’s a repeatable process that allows you to scale and it outputs things with the same quality every time the system runs.” Thanh Pham

Since everything is a system, it’s how you optimize it that matters. Thanh’s simplification of systems is that everything has an input, a process, and an output. We focus on the output, and our input and process is what we do to achieve it.

Why do systems work, and why are they important?

  • We remember things we do repeatedly.
  • We take time to adjust to a new way of doing things.
  • Our brain likes to do familiar things, so it gravitates towards these habits.

Your Own Personal Systems Keep You Away from Distractions

The leader 8

Here’s a motivational fact: taking a process from start to finish without interruption saves you an average of 23 minutes. That’s 23 minutes your brain would otherwise spend getting back in gear and up to its previous efficiency after an interruption.

When you develop or customize a system yourself, you’re more likely to stay committed to it. You’re comfortable with the core components and will take it from beginning to end without getting caught up in the wrong method or technicalities.

It’s tempting to study systems and spend time making sure you’re ready to start implementing them, only to end up abandoning them before the end of the day. If you invest time (and money) in something, you’re more likely to stick around.

As you’ve seen, everything’s a system. From creating a process to your weekly newsletter, you already have systems in place, whether you like them or not.

When you evaluate the way you do any of the thousands of tasks you might do over the course of a week, here are some things to keep in mind.

Can you automate it?

Productivity systems are a set of workflows and tools you use to help you organize your brain, quickly understand what needs doing, then execute the work in the most efficient way possible.

We’re not bustling around in offices filled with typewriters, overflowing filing systems, and sticky notes any more. We live in an age where most tasks can be automated, and that’s something that’s started to emerge only in the past few years.

The question is whether you should bother setting up an automation at all.

There have been times where I’ve tried to automate something before I’m in the flow of the action that triggers the automation. I get a wild idea that it’d be great to push a certain Evernote tag to Todoist, but I’m not in the flow of properly using Evernote tags or managing my tasks with Todoist.

“You can only automate something in your personal productivity system that you have managed for a while.” CM Smith

Some of the best automation tools around include:

IFTTT (Android, iOS, web)

A mobile and web service for connecting two apps together with “recipes.” For example: Whenever I “heart” something on Twitter, IFTTT saves it automatically to Pocket IFTTT has hundreds of recipes built in for common use cases, but you can create a theoretical near-infinite number of your own.

Zapier (web)

Zapier is a more complex and powerful version of IFTTT. It allows you to link many apps together, search databases automatically, and perform multiple actions per trigger. Zapier is more geared towards business process automation than personal use.

Process Street (web)

Process Street is a workflow automation tool that lets you write your systems as checklists, then link Zapier triggers to each step. For example, when you check off “send invoice” on the Process Street checklist, Zapier can be set up to send an invoice off automatically. It acts as a dashboard for your systems and integrations, tying them together as processes that execute automatically.

Automator (OS X)

Automator is a native Mac app for creating time-saving workflows. You can chain events together, so whenever you perform a trigger or run a script, a series of actions can be carried out automatically. For example: Run an Automator script to batch resize your photos, instead of doing them one by one.

TextExpander (OS X, Windows)

How many hours could you save if you never had to type out your address, full name, or generic “thank you” email again? Even though these are small actions, they can stack up over time and leave you many hours in debt. With TextExpander, you can set keyboard shortcuts and the app fills in the rest for you automatically. There’s a little bit of setup time while it guesses what would be best for you to automate, but after that it’s all benefits.

Keyboard Maestro (OS X)

Create a keyboard shortcut for anything with Keyboard Maestro. Launch applications, resize windows, open a particular file, execute Automator workflows, and more. If it were up to me, I’d never use my mouse again, so this is the perfect tool for my personal mindset.

Workflow (iOS)

Workflow is like Automator for iOS. Instead of being able to automate things like batch file renaming, it can do things like automatically append Safari links to an Evernote note, speak your last five Pocket articles out loud, and turn a series of images into a gif. Check out AE’s guide to Workflow here.

Are you using the right tools?

I used to be dead set against paper as a productivity tool. It actually took me up to the point where I tried to switch from Evernote to OneNote and realized that the paper-like layout of OneNote was ideal for quickly reeling off ideas and structuring them later.

“In my mind, there’s something demanding about an empty word processor window, but something freeing about a blank sheet of paper. Maybe it has to do with the fact that I spend a heck of a lot of time working in word processors, but when I need to sweep my mind and get all the loose ends down the easiest, fastest, and most comprehensive way involves paper.” Joel Falconer

Now I keep a notepad in the kitchen and when I go to make coffee in the morning, I sit down at the table and casually leaf through, capture my thoughts, and cross any old items off. If I get the nagging feeling I’ve forgotten to do something for the day, I can go get the notebook and, behold, the action item will probably be in there.

I have a terrible memory, even though I’m regularly documenting my life. There’s something distracting about a laptop when you’re trying to get into freeform mode and write down your thoughts. As shown by a study:

“Using pen and paper, not laptops, to take notes boosts memory and the ability to retain and understand concepts” Lizette Borreli

But again, that’s just me. Systems are infinitely complex, and there’s no point in trying to directly adopt any of mine. When you’re working through your system, consider whether you’re truly using the most efficient and comfortable tools for the job.

Is the System as Simple as It Can Be?

Girl writing in the diary on wooden table at night

For purposes of illustration, I’m going to explain a system I use for writing articles. It’s a system I use every day, and one that has evolved through so many stages, it’s unrecognizable from what it used to be.

  • Writing an article starts with a request. It might be a reply back to a pitch, or a straight-up request. Either way, I know my audience before I start on the article because I’m in direct contact with the target publication.
  • I add the article as a task to my to-do list, and ignore it until an idea starts to surface in my mind, usually 1-2 days later.
  • When I have an idea, I create a new tag for the publication in Evernote and a new note called ideas: [target publication].
  • I draft out a few title options and outlines in there, before seeing a common theme and coming up with a keyword I can use for research.
  • I spent around one hour clipping source material into that tag, gathering quotes and letting them inform the structure of the piece.
  • The rest of the day is spent filling in the blanks, referencing the source material I now have just one click away in the sidebar.

Now that, to me, is a simple system. Maybe it’s not simple to you, but for me it just…works. I’ve messed around in the past for months, with ridiculous integrations, work/break schedules, blocking out days for ideas and days for writing.

The good news is that you can learn way more about simplifying systems from this podcast episode which was, a few months back, the seed which grew this article in my mind.

The bad news for everyone who doesn’t have a system that works for them is that it’s difficult. You read a bunch of articles because it’s almost a form of procrastination. There’s no article you can read that’s going to solve your issue. In fact, there’s probably no way to even sit down in one go and consciously solve the issue — unless you accept that written systems give you tremendous value as starting points when you adapt them to your own life.

So, What’s the Best Solution for Your Systems?

Man finishing the last piece of the puzzle

You’ll be able to “rewrite” a quality productivity system and adapt it to your own life, but it’s not always ideal to copy it exactly.

Getting Things Done isn’t ideal for me. And I have my issues with Kanban. Just about the only thing I can get with 95% is Agile, and even then I have trouble…

I’ve settled on a mash-up of productivity systems that work for me, but look like nonsense from the outside.

Your head isn’t David Allen’s — you can’t expect to be able to wholly subscribe to one productivity system or another. You will, however, over time, develop your own without meaning to, using the existing systems as a starting point.

And — while it will be based heavily on something out there already — it’ll be better than anything you can expect to find written already, because it’ll be yours.


This is a guest post by Benjamin Brandall, the head of content marketing at Process Street, a workflow app for creating personal and business systems that help you get more done. Get in touch with him over on his personal blog.

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12 Comments

Posted by Dwayne Weiser  | September 15, 2016 at 9:40AM | Reply

Excellent guest post! Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think the biggest take-away here is the notion that as an individual you need to come up with your own personal productivity system that manages to make your day more efficient, based on your personal rhythm, habits, and skill set. While there are many different tools out there that can make your work easier, it’s up to you to find the right ones that will ultimately increase your success rate and save you more time. Again, great post and looking forward to reading more of your work.

Posted by Benjamin Brandall  | September 15, 2016 at 12:32PM | Reply

Thanks, Dwayne! I’m so happy you got something out of the post. And yes, I wrote this because I was in the wrong mindset about prescribed systems. Basically, it’s about me getting over the barrier between A system and MY system.

I hope I can appear again here on the AE blog! I’m honored and I’m a massive fan.

Posted by Linda Maye Adams  | September 15, 2016 at 7:44PM | Reply

So true about making systems your own. I’m a right-brained creative, and I had a crisis at work and started looking at time management and productivity books. It was terrible because they all recommended the same things–all things that did not work for me. Some even said, “I know creatives don’t play well with X, but do it anyway.” My system ultimately evolved over a long period and by keeping the system as simple as possible, and for work, automating the heck out of everything.

But one thing worth noting: it’s also hard developing any kind of system if you’re in constant fire fighting mode.

Posted by Benjamin Brandall  | September 19, 2016 at 7:09AM | Reply

Linda,

Absolutely agreed about it being impossible to progress if everything that happens needs to be classed as ‘urgent’!

What do you use for automation?

Posted by Linda Maye Adams  | September 19, 2016 at 7:03PM | Reply

Benjamin,

It’s not a specific tool or app. Rather, I figured out where I was doing unnecessary or repetitive tasks and automated them with existing software. Like on a spreadsheet, I created a drop down for two columns so the information was available available for me to select. I also send a lot of instructions via email, and there are several that are pretty common. So those are different signature blocks. I also use email templates.

Posted by Brittany Joiner  | September 24, 2016 at 9:41AM | Reply

I think we can have a negative connotation of productivity “systems” because to some people, they think it sounds like we’re trying to dehumanize or become a machine. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s figuring out how to get things through a workflow so that we can be more human than ever before and do things that make a difference. Also, love the recos here on automation. Zapier is a personal favorite tool of mine. So many ways to use it!

Posted by Martin Lindeskog  | September 27, 2016 at 9:47AM | Reply

Benjamin,

I am developing my own personalized productivity system based on both pen & paper and digital tools. I call it F.IX. IT! ;)

All the Best,

Martin

Posted by Kyle L  | October 12, 2016 at 11:01AM | Reply

Great article Benjamin, there’s some really good insight here. I’m surprised you didn’t talk about the 80/20 rule though. It may be a good topic that complements your article. I’m sure you’re familiar with the rule, but essentially 20% of your activity leads to 80% of the results, and I think you can truly be productive if you apply your suggestions to the most important 20%. I’ll link a short video that helps explain the rule further. Keep up the great writing! http://blog.jaretgrossman.com/365-video-series/8020-rule-315/

Posted by Alexandra  | January 4, 2017 at 5:03AM | Reply

Hi, Benjamin! I really liked your piece, but what really struck a chord with me was the cost of interruptions. 23 minutes can add up really quickly and eat up most of your day. I, for one, will keep this number in mind and steer clear of multitasking.

Posted by kelly humphery  | August 9, 2017 at 9:09PM | Reply

IN my own view I think we can have a negative connotation of productivity “systems” because to some people, they think it sounds like we’re trying to dehumanize or become a machine. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s figuring out how to get things through a workflow so that we can be more human than ever before and do things that make a difference. and lots more other things like love

Posted by Louis Baker  | September 6, 2017 at 5:15PM | Reply

I am a young adult and I have had a many rough months because of no or little coordination in my affairs but after reading this your guest post i am beginning to find a new path in other to use the above tools to coordinated my life and maximize my potentials. Thanks for the information and God bless. Gratias

Posted by Humphery Scott  | September 30, 2017 at 8:42AM | Reply

If i should suggest, I had a crisis at work and started looking at time management and productivity books. It was terrible because they all recommended the same things–all things that did not work for me. Some even said, “I know creatives don’t play well with X, but do it anyway.” This is awesome my dear, Thanks for sharing i love this its wonderful… GREAT TIPS thanks once more

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