Where Should You Start When You’re Struggling To Improve?

Who is this for? Those who want to improve, yet have no idea where to start.

My friends over at Asian Efficiency recently shared their 7 Truths About Productivity. They make several sound points, but I can’t help but feel as if they underemphasized what I believe to be an essential truth and a potential starting point for those looking to improve.

They examine self management, perfect systems, the importance of sex, time constraints, diet, technology and psychology. Throughout the piece they allude to what I believe to be the single most important truth: this isn’t about better understanding aspects of productivity, it’s about better understanding yourself.

When I first got serious about getting my act together, I put a fair amount of energy into discovering the tactics that might help, the tools I might try, the life changes I might make. I went to sites exactly like the one you’re reading now in hopes of discovering the secrets that would make all of the difference. These early experiments helped, some even made an impact, but they didn’t really make a difference.

The Problem With Premature Progress

As we look to improve, we crave progress. This usually implies forward motion. Our desire to forge ahead leads us to overlook our present struggles and motivations and causes us to overlook many of our current strengths.

My advice, forgo some of your productivity progress in favor of enhancing your understanding of current strengths, weaknesses, patterns and desires. Get to know yourself as well as you get to know the options that are available to you.

Don’t crack open Getting Things Done. Don’t download yet another app. Don’t try a new hack. Take out some paper or start a new text file and have at yourself. Really consider and clarify the way that you work. List out what’s working and force yourself to face what isn’t. Question your choices. Do you even want to get better at the thing you’re doing? Take the time to seriously examine who you are, what you’re doing how you’re currently doing things and what might be causing you to feel as if you need to improve. If it’s as simple as difficulty managing your volume of email, you’ll find no shortage of solutions. But it usually isn’t.

I’m not suggesting you start reading every self-help book out there, I’m not really even suggesting you stop considering your options. I’m just suggesting that you spend as much of your energy improving your self-awareness as your workflow. Much like that better workflow you’re looking to create, self-awareness takes time to cultivate. If you start by making self-awareness a priority, it will become a force multiplier.

The time I’ve spent enhancing this understanding certainly slowed my initial efforts, but it exponentially enhanced my long-term progress. A better understanding keeps me from trying things that would most likely be a bad fit. It lets me tweak what works for others to work for me. It has helped me to separate a critical issue that needs addressing from an interest that will soak up my attention, but do little to improve my creative output. It allows me to better observe my patterns and to catch myself when I’m falling back into old and unhelpful habits.

The Problem With Sites Like This

So many sites, including this one, encourage you to experiment, improve and evolve your personal productivity system. We suggest tools, tactics and life changes that can help you overcome whatever ails you. These are great resources as you progress, but their daily offerings are often a poor starting point.

As my friends over at Asian Efficiency later point out:

Technology is not the primary solution to your productivity issues.

You are.

[…]

Technology is a catalyst, not a fix.

Your knowledge, skills and insights are far more important than any app.

I think this speaks to far more than just technology and apps. It’s equally true of the tactics we attempt to adopt and tweaks to our psychology or physiology. We are always at the center of our challenges, and until we better understand them, we’re likely building around a core that is unstable.

My guess is that this isn’t your first visit to a site like this, and my guess is that whatever the other site suggested didn’t really fix the real problem. If it did, you wouldn’t bother reading a post about where to get started. So here’s what I suggest you try if everything you’ve been reading and everything you’ve attempted hasn’t worked: stop looking out and start looking in.

Don’t rush, don’t think of this as a box to check off. Consider attempting a larger mission. Make self-awareness an integral part of your attempts to do better. You aren’t just looking to improve your productivity, you’re looking to improve as a person.

Personalizing Someone Else’s Productivity System

Who is this for? While targeted at online entrepreneurs, this video can also help just about anyone looking to apply a basic, yet tactical approach to better handling their daily work.

I was recently invited by Chase Reeves to check out Fizzle, a community for online entrepreneurs that centers around carefully-created training videos. After watching his Productivity Essentials course – a great starting point for entrepreneurs struggling with their workload – I suggested that we have a “productivity throwdown”.

While I agreed with the big ideas and concepts of the course, I handle many of the smaller details differently. The overarching concepts he shares apply to almost anyone, yet I believe the details of how they should be implemented will vary from person-to-person.

Chase felt that a full-blown throwdown was excessive, but thought a conversation was in order. He even added the 35 minute discussion that followed to his Productivity Essential course on Fizzle.

It costs $1 to check this out (this also gives you full access the site for one month). If you’re struggling with your workload and are yet to dive too deeply into the world of productivity, Chase’s advice is well worth your time. As is our follow-up conversation on making it work better for you.

Note: This is not an affiliate link, I just like the approach and philosophy behind Fizzle (as well as Chase’s willingness to have someone “disagree” with him).

You Need To Decide

Who is this for? Those who fiddle and tinker to the point that all they’re doing is fiddling and tinkering…instead of actually doing.

It’s no secret that I’ve got a bit of a thing for testing out apps. Whether they are task management apps, notetaking apps, writing apps, email apps, or calendar apps, I tend to put many of them through the paces on a regular basis. Not everyone can do that without getting stuck tinkering or fiddling – and I fall prey to that roadblock now and again too. But ultimately I know what I’m expecting out of an app when I start to use it, which helps me decide on whether or not to keep them around.

Knowing what you want out of an app is critical, but knowing what you want to do with the app is even more so.

Take Evernote for example. It’s one of those apps that can do a whole lot, which is both its strength and its weakness. Its ubiquity allows it to be with you almost anywhere and anytime, but unless you use it intentionally then that ubiquity doesn’t really benefit you. When you start looking at an app like Evernote, you need to make a concrete decision on what you plan to use it for before you download it. How you come to that decision doesn’t really matter (I’d bet that reading sites like this one often shapes that decision), but you need to come to that decision in order to get the most out of the app from the onset. (By the way, here’s how I use Evernote.)

No matter what tool you’re using, you need to decide what you’re using it for before you add it to your workflow. Otherwise it won’t add to your effectiveness. Instead it will add friction – which is the nemesis of flow.

Information vs. User Disarray

Who is this for? Those struggling to determine the ideal number of tools to use in their workflow.

From Devir Kahan at BitQuill:

Over the last few weeks a problem that has only gotten worse with time started to bug me more than ever before. I call it “information disarray” and it is the issue of all of the important organizational bits of your digital life being scattered throughout a variety of different apps and services. Your todos are in one app, articles ideas in another, things you want to buy in another, movies you want to watch in another, appointments in another, and lists in still another. Everything is everywhere and you have no idea where to look to find something.
 
There was a time when there was a single application you could go to and see everything you needed to worry about or take care of that day/week. Now things are spread out all over the place with highly specialized apps each claiming little bits of information for themselves. I can never find a specific item that I want, and I have, more than once, missed important information because I was not in the right app at the right time.

We’re now offered an array of tools to help us manage our day-to-day, many of which overlap. It’s far too easy to take on too many of them and find yourself lost in the very tools you hoped would save you. That said, I also think trying to structure one tool to do it all (or aggressively minimizing tools for minimizing’s sake) to be an equally inefficient solution. Let’s face it, the lack of ever having a single application where you could go to see everything you needed is what led us to branch off and find more focused alternatives in the first place. 

While I agree that there is a very real concern about having too many tools doing too many things, I’m not sure I agree that this is a technology issue. To me, it’s strictly a user issue. I avoid highly specialized apps as they tend to lead to the kind of confusion Devir warns against. Rather than using a grocery app, I stick to a general list app (Listary is my current choice, but Silo is coming along nicely). This means that anything that would belong on a list, from hardware store needs to books I’d like to read, all live in one place. I may not get the advantages of more focused apps (such as Recall for book, TV and movie suggestions), but I never wonder where anything belongs.

Rather than obsessing on a single app or even the app count, I always find it’s better to think of these tools as part of a single workflow that’s meant to provide the clarity needed to get through the day, week, month and year. The solution, at least for me, digitally is the same as in my home: a place for everything and everything in its place.

I’m intentional about the tools I use, but I’m even more intentional about the way I use them. All written text goes into nvALT, reference materials go into Evernote, tasks are in OmniFocus, lists are in Listary, reminders are in Due, appointments are in Fantastical/Google Calendar. By the way, these tools are not mutually exclusive. If I need to get a piece of writing done by a certain date, there’s a task for it in OmniFocus with a link directly back into that piece. If I have a meeting, the reference material gets the same treatment in OmniFocus with a link back to my notes for the meeting.

In Devir’s case, he is trying to use Things to handle more of his workload. This may very well work for him, but if I tried to keep my daily tasks, my writing wants, my shopping lists and more in once place my system would implode in on itself. The clarity my system provides me would diminish and ultimately it would help me get less done. Between managing my home life, my work life and my personal projects, my task list is overloaded enough.

This may seem insane to some, it may even create some friction, but I never wonder where anything goes or where I need to go when I need something, I know. Is there still disarray in my day? Absolutely, but very little of it tends to come from my technology and if used right, I don’t think much of it will for you as well. It just requires taking the time the time to decide what to use, discovering the best way to use it and then having the discipline to actually use it that way. It isn’t always easy, but I’ve found it to be an effective tool for eliminating a fair amount of my daily disarray.

The Thing About Focus

Who is this for? Those who are worried about keeping focused on the right things versus the wrong things.

We’ve been pretty silent here at Workflowing for the past week and a bit.

Schechter and I have both been traveling, and with plenty on our plates before and after said travel, our focus has been split … somewhat. The reason I consider it “split … somewhat” is because we had an inkling this would happen. We knew that when we started develping Workflowing in public that in its early stages there would be other things we’d committed to that would keep our focus elsewhere for periods of time.

And we were okay with that. Why? Because in order to have focus, you need to accept that you will have to put things aside.

That doesn’t mean you can let things slide – especially if the expectation is that you’ll give those things some of your focus. For example, I had writing assignments that I couldn’t let slide – as outlined in a post earlier this week on Productivityist – but I prepared accordingly so that I could give those assignments the focus they deserved when I could afford to give them that focus. The result was that I delivered as promised and no one was let down in the process.

By being up front about how this site was a “work in progress” (so to speak) and then taking that one step further and broadcasting that on Twitter, we gave this site the focus it needed before we shifted focus to the other things we needed to focus on. So we didn’t really split our focus at all. We shifted it – and we did so accordingly.

This week on Mikes on Mics we talked with Julien Smith, who recently unveiled what his new company, Breather, was all about. During the discussion, we talked about “zooming in” and “zooming out”, and Julien makes a point of saying how he couldn’t focus on being a founder of a brand new venture if he was focused on being a best-selling author at the same time. Making that distinction – and that decision – is going to have a huge impact on the effectiveness of your workflow. Admitting that you can’t be everywhere all the time despite having access to everywhere most of the time is huge.

We did that over the past couple of weeks – and we’ll do that again. Maybe not in the same way, but we’ll still do it so that we can shift our focus rather than split our focus.

Did we have the tools to do this with us? You bet. Would it have been done well? No. Neither would the other things we had to do. Going forward we’ll need to figure out what happens when neither one of us can be here to man the ship because clearly it will happen. As I mentioned in an exchange over on App.net with Kevin Rothermel, while the Internet is everywhere, our focus can’t be.

The takeaway here is that it is perfectly fine to pay attention to what needs attention rather than all that needs attention. That’s how good work becomes great work – which is the kind of work we all should be striving to do.

Book Review – Workflow: Beyond Productivity

Who is it for? Those looking to take a deep dive into the concepts of productivity, workflow, creativity and mastery that goes far beyond the “how to”.

Kourosh Dini has already written an incredibly useful – if not the most useful – ebook on the popular task management application, OmniFocus, with Using OmniFocus. His latest work, Workflow: Beyond Productivity is very different, and will be increidbly useful to perhaps a very different audience. It dives deep into the realm of workflow and indeed goes well beyond productivity, compelling the reader to really spend some time thinking, fostering, and mastering their own workflow.

The book clocks in at over 500 pages, so it is isn’t a quick read. Nor is it meant to be. This kind of work is something you need to dwell on as a reader, digesting it slowly. Dini calls it an “eTextbook” and that’s an apt description.

The text is composed of five “books”, each of which focuses on a particular element of workflow:

  1. Book One discusses intention and organization. This book is almost like a prologue in that it prepares you for what’s to come by putting you in the right state of mind.
  2. Book Two is where the rubber begins to really meet the road as Dini writes about stations, habits, and sessions. This is where you’ll learn how to start developing the muscles needed to enhance and embrace your ability to develop a solid workflow.
  3. Book Three is all about silence, agency, and decisions. I found that this was the book that asked the reader to work on understanding and developing the idea of mindfulness when dealing with both work – and play.
  4. Book Four focuses on mastery and magic. Once you make it to this point, you’ll start to notice an “a-ha” moment has the propensity to occur. It’s almost as if Dini guides you through all of the ’“front-end work” of productivity to get you to this portion, where workflow mastery – and the magic that comes with it – really starts to kick in.
  5. Book Five is an excellent end point, as it discusses communication, meaning, and action. I found this to be the book where awareness and mindfulness were at the forefront, especially considering that every other phase of workflow had been explored and dissected.

There is more to this book than just the sheer amount of depth, breadth, and care that went into the text. Workflow: Beyond Productivity also comes with flash cards (something I’ve not encountered in this platform before) that allow the reader to review definitions of terms and questions that are asked throughout the work so they can achieve a deeper understanding of them – which will assist in their journey to mastering workflow. There is also accompanying video, which can be used in conjunction with the music section of the text (and most certainly should be to get the most out of that section).

Let me be clear: this isn’t a book that will be for everyone. It’s not only a “how to” book but it is very much a “why to” book as well. I have found that having both elements equally explored can really take your work and life to new heights, and Dini has gone further and deeper with Workflow: Beyond Productivity than I’ve ever read in one collection. It’s an academic work, and it’s something you’ll spend time “studying” more so than simply “reading”, and it is priced as such.

Workflow: Beyond Productivity is a master class in workflow that, as indicated, goes well beyond productivity. I recommend it highly and suggest you buy this DRM-free eTextbook (and its companion materials) for the introductory price of $29.95 through the end of May (click here to purchase). It is one of those rare works that will truly help you in the quest to stop doing things and start doing the right things.