A week doesn’t go by without a new productivity or project management system coming on the scene. While there are some that do have truly useful features to help you get more done, most of them are simply a new user interface for the same functionality.

What’s more, our online mentors regularly talk about their preferred tools. Often called Productivity Porn, these in-depth looks at how big names use their tools fool us into thinking that if we only used the same tool we’d be just as rich and famous. If only we follow their method we’ll get as much done as they do.

For a time a new system feels great and we do get more done. But then the problems surface and the problem is how we use the productivity tools. A new productivity tool or strategy is almost always a placebo for your poor productivity habits. The only utility in these new tools is often that they let you think you’re doing better when the cruft hasn’t built up yet.

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Instead of trying out a new tool, start sticking to the basics so you can build up good habits around what you need to get done.

The weekly review

Start with a weekly review and plan your week ahead. Take time at the end of your week to go over all your projects and look at each task in them. Assign those tasks to days in the upcoming week. When I fail to do this I see a 15-20% drop in what I get done each week.

Secondly, as you do your review make some hard decisions. While you said you’d clean your grandmother’s garage, be honest with yourself. Do you simply like the idea of being the hero who helps their grandmother, or are you really going to do it? If you’re going to do it, put it on your calendar and do it. Otherwise tell her you can’t, or hire someone to help her. The mental energy wasted over tasks that you’re not going to do anyway is making you less productive.

The daily recap

Even though you’ve planned your week it’s likely that things are going to come up you couldn’t plan for. Your kid gets sick or your computer dies and your week has to adjust.

Spend the last 15 minutes of your day going over the tasks for the next day. Flag the top task for the day and when you come in for the day only work on that task until it’s done or until the time you’ve allowed is done.

Knowing what is most important before you even get to work makes it easy to push your big important projects forward every day. You simply come in and work on that important task first thing.

Quarterly clean-ups

Every quarter it’s time to sit down with yourself and make some hard decisions. If you have a task that you’ve been meaning to do for three months and it’s not done then it’s time to face up to the fact that it’s not important.

Maybe it seems important but it clearly hasn’t been important enough to get done in three months. If you have something sitting that long you’re not going to do it, so cut it from your list or delegate it to someone that will get it done.

If you have a coach or mentor, do the quarterly recap with them. That outside perspective is often all it takes to have the final push to clean out those things that sounded good but are never going to happen.

Get comfortable with the word no

The most productive word in your vocabulary is the word ’no’. It’s the word that doesn’t even let the cruft build up in your productivity system. It’s the word you use when a friend asks for a favour that you have no time for.

You don’t use it often because we’re all taught from a very young age that pleasing most of the people around us is a worthy goal. While you will need to do things you don’t want for a close circle of friends and family, that circle needs to be much smaller than we make it.

Every new request for your time should go through the filter of what your goals are. When you’re asked to help out with some non-profit, ask yourself if their mission really lines up with your mission. If it does, what are you going to stop doing because this non-profit is more important? Many times when you start filtering those requests against what really matters they won’t even make it into your system, so you don’t have to feel guilty later about cutting them out.

Next time you see a new productivity system, just ignore it. Use the time you’d spend seeing if it’s something for you to recap the productivity habits you need to improve on. Then stick with what you have and get back to getting work done.

photo credit: clement127 cc