Three principles highly productive people use

I’ve been a student of personal productivity, including time management, all my life. Truth be told, I was like one those photographers festooned with equipment — cameras, tripods, flashes, jackets with tens of pockets for every conceivable gadget (I used to be that kind of photographer too, but that’s a different story).

Over my life I have researched and tried almost every known productivity and time management system out there — and literally created some of my own. In my software development days I used to believe fervently that my systems would give me an edge. Some of those systems helped — mostly they didn’t. I read and studied everything from Steven Covey’s Seven Habits to Brian Tracy’s Eat that frog to David Allen’s Getting Things Done and a hundred in between. I remember the joy I experienced the day I discovered Lee Valley’s Portable Office — not only did it look terribly organized, I also loved the look and feel of the paper and the binding. Surely this would help me get my life organized!

So as a lifelong student, I claim strong familiarity with the subject of time management and personal productivity. And I would like to leave you with three key insights that I hope will make a difference in your life.

1. The best systems are the simple ones

When you’re trying to become more productive and manage your time more efficiently, the last thing you want is a system that adds more work. The principles driving your system should be simple, and the tools helping you do that should be unobtrusive but available when you need them.

I’ve adopted the principles of Getting Things Done (GTD) for collecting and organizing all the stuff I need to do, and the tool I use is Things. The principles underlying the methodology are simple and the tools are unobtrusive and synchronize across all my platforms.

But the task management software is not enough — it just allows me to collect, organize and prioritize stuff. I’ve also adopted the principle of:

2. If it’s not in the calendar, it doesn’t get done

Every week (sometimes every day if things are running hot) I will schedule time to get the stuff in my task list done. I don’t necessarily schedule time for every little thing — sometime 30 minutes to get a bunch of small items done. But everything needs to go into the calendar.

…everything needs to go into the calendar.

Sometime scheduling stuff doesn’t work. I often find myself scheduling administrative or otherwise boring stuff for a particular time, but when I look back at the week I realize I’ve often moved these around as more shiny things appeared. At least I don’t delete them from the calendar — they stay there until they’re done. But oh man, can they move around!

That leads me to the third insight:

3. If you don’t know where you’re going, you probably won’t get there

Using systems like GTD are great for managing all the tasks you need to get done. But if you’re in business your life is not run by tasks — its run by big things like projects, year-ends or deliverables. And if you’re an entrepreneur you know that there are always more of these things than you can possibly get done.

So here’s the insight: You need to plan out your year, quarter and months.

But most importantly you need to plan what you need to get done in the next week, every week.

Have you ever looked back at a week and wondered where the time went? How much (or how little) you got done? And — here’s the kicker — how much (or how little) that moved you towards your goals? So here’s the thing:

  • if you are able to plan out the things you need to achieve each week;

  • set out the time you need in your calendar to do those things; and

  • still keep some “slack” time for all the other stuff that’s going to pop up,

you will be amazed at how much you can get done.

I hope that helps!