Every now and then I have conversations with friends and colleagues about how productivity ‘works’. It’s a great opportunity to reflect on the things that I take for granted but that might not immediately be obvious.
In one of these conversations I tried to describe what the key components of a good productivity workflow are and how I have set my workflows up in an attempt to maximise my productivity. What I ended up describing was a number of productivity “Zones”, each of which need some setup and embedding in order to support a productive workflow.
There are numerous different aspects to being productive: lifestyle, attitude, tools etc. but in this converstion I was focused on workflow, so the zones are very workflow-oriented.
In my productivity world, the key zones are:
- Input: This is about ‘capture’ (the art of writing stuff down that comes onto your pad) but it’s also about managing your inboxes and setting up filters for input sources that you may not want but can’t avoid
- Task management: The workhorse of the productivity workflow, this is about how you process all your input, prioritise your tasks and generally get stuff done
- Archiving and recall: Your choice of archiving setup significantly influences your ability to recall important information and the amount of peripheral stuff you also decide to keep
Setting up your zones
The first thing you need to do in setting up the 3 zones of productivity is determining what’s already in them.
- Input: Identify the ways in which tasks and information currently reach you. How many email inboxes do you need to monitor? What regular meetings result in actions for you? What capture tools do you have available?
- Task management: What approach to you take to getting stuff done? Do you have a productivity or workflow system? What tools do you use? How many calendars do you maintain?
- Archiving & Recall: What do you do with stuff that you don’t need to action (or have already actioned?) How easily can you find information that you’ve filed? How long do you hold on to stuff “just in case”?
Once you’ve carried out this assessment, the next job is to decide what to keep, what to get rid of and what’s missing. This is a very personal exercise, as only you know what you find useful and what is holding you back. General advice I would offer is:
- Try to minimise the number of inboxes (but don’t necessarily try to aim for one)
- Try to identify a primary tool for each zone (it doesn’t have to be an app; it might be pen and paper)
- Try to identify any areas where you’re repeating an activity or storing information twice
Optimising your productivity zones is an iterative process, so don’t worry if your initial setup isn’t perfect; you’ll be able to hone it over time.
Make sure it works together
This might be the first time you’ve consciously considered how the three productivity zones work together, so once you have a setup you’re comfortable with it’s a good idea to give it a spin and observe the results.
Journalling is a good way to do this; write down each day the things that have worked well, and those that haven’t. Try and make observations specific to the zones and/or the points where they interact.
As you observe and record things that aren’t working quite right for you, experiment with them to see if you can address the problem you’re experiencing. Iterate this process until you’re broadly comfortable with your workflow.
Embed through habit
Once you’re happy with how your productivity zones are operating, you’re ready to embed them through habit. This is a really important step, as only when your newly improved workflow is second nature will it truly be a powerful force for your productivity.
Try and establish rituals and routines that embed the changes you have made. Whether this is scheduling daily reviews of your inboxes, purchasing a new pad and paper to carry round with you or ensuring that you file all your documents in your archive at the end of every week, pick a few key habits to embed and make conscious effort to stick to them.
Once the rituals are established and the habits are formed, you’ll see a real step change in how the design of your productivity zones assists and supports your productive day.
Experiment, improve and iterate
This is not a one-stop exercise. By experimenting, changing, improving you are achieving two things:
- Keeping the setup of your zones in the forefront of the mind, improving the mindfulness of your actions
- Adapting and adjusting to changes to your life patterns, including incorporating new things you may learn
Be sure to take the time to re-embed any new habits if you make significant changes. I also recommend going back to the setup stage every now and again; this will force you to reevaluate your productivity setup and look for opportunities to amend or augment it.