A Simple System to Maximize Productivity

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I recently wrote a post: A Simple System for Building Good Habits which outlined a system I have found to be effective in my personal development. Following that post I published another one inspired by a conversation I heard with Harley Finkelstein titled: Requalifying for Your Job which had a focus on professional development. 

I received good feedback on both of these posts. I am appreciative of everyone who takes the time to share feedback. It helps me refine my thinking on the topics discussed and shapes future posts. I also continue to gain new insights from a lot of smart people. Thank you. 

One theme from the feedback on my last two posts was the question of how I set near-term priorities to simply get stuff done. The first two posts above focused largely on the longer arc of development but didn’t talk much about the practical day-to-day, week-to-week planning process to maximize productivity.

How do I decide what to prioritize? How do I set deliverables and keep myself accountable? How do I organize my time? 

This post dives into each of these questions. There are some principles in here that I’ve been using for over a decade and some that I’ve developed in the last few years. The sum of these have helped me develop a simple system to help maximize productivity. I hope you find this helpful. As always, feedback is appreciated.

What does it mean to be productive?

Being productive doesn’t mean that you get a lot of stuff done, it means you’re getting the right stuff done. Anyone can keep themselves busy, the key is to (1) prioritize the most important things, and (2) execute on those things as efficiently as possible. 

The process of being productive is therefore not a measure of how many things you got done. It’s a measure of the impact of your time. The goal is to maximize leverage with our time ie. the greatest output relative to our inputs. 

Note: I am not suggesting that everything in our lives should be measured via perceived time leverage. Spending time with family, as an example, might not have a measurable outcome but that doesn’t mean you should minimize that activity in the pursuit of something with a high leverage output. Time leverage is a heuristic to use primarily for vocational activities (work, school) and personal development (fitness, learning, etc.) but those should be compartmentalized within the broader context of life. 

Deciding what to prioritize

For years I fell into the trap of trying to maximize “the hustle”. Our culture celebrates busyness. Whether explicitly or implicitly we all feel the pressure to “stay busy”. It’s become a badge of honour to say one is “busy”. It infers you are important enough to have things to keep you busy. This post does not argue that everyone should just “chill out” (although I think a lot of us could). This post posits that many of us get caught in the trap of prioritizing busyness instead of a thoughtful consideration of what we are trying to get done. 

For myself, I used to give little thought to what I prioritize – and more importantly, deprioritize – because I was “keeping busy”. I would wake up and just start working on whatever was top of mind. In a professional setting, that meant I was working on what was at the top of my inbox. As a student I would just work on whatever was due next. I was treating my time like I was on an assembly line, just grabbing whatever was next on the conveyor belt. But as we know, life isn’t as simple as a conveyor belt (wouldn’t it be nice if it was?)

A simple system helped me cut through this. It was initially spurred by Ted Livingston who is my leader at work. Ted has an ability to prioritize and compartmentalize unlike anyone I know. He gets stuff done with ruthless efficiency and it always delivers high impact. When I first started working with Ted he would simply ask me: “What are your top three priorities for the week?” 

At first, this question stressed me out. I have way more than three things I want/need to get done this week. So the first time he asked me this I shared a stack ranked list well in excess of three. Ted responded that he just wanted three. If I could only focus on three things, what would those be. 

This simple question did two things: 

  1. It forced me to scrutinize over what I would prioritize. If I only have three things, they better be high leverage. 
  2. It forced me to look at options to deprioritize other things. This might mean putting something on the back burner, or it might mean empowering someone else to take something on who might be in a better position to execute.

Why three? Well there is actually some beauty in the simplicity of three. There is a latin phrase Omne Trium Perfectum which translates to Everything That Comes in Threes is Perfect. This has been applied to literature known as the Rule of Three which is a principle that things that come in three are most likely to create the best narrative flow and has the greatest chance of sticking to memory. If we’re going to set out our priorities, we should first aim to have a system to simply remember what is most important. 

Aligning on a top three does not mean that I abandon anything outside of the top three. Life, work, school, etc doesn’t necessarily respect the Rule of Three, we usually (almost always) have more than three things on the go. But what a top three does is create a canonical set of priorities that take precedence over others. It should be the list of the highest leverage activities. 

To select my top three I use the Eisenhower Matrix popularized by Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th President of the United States. Whether you agree with his politics or not, the man had a penchant for productivity. The Eisenhower Matrix (left) focuses mostly on decision making, my version is a slight adjustment on priority setting (right). The main difference is instead of Important / Not Important, I use this matrix to think about leverage of my time. Something might be high impact or important but it’s not going to be high leverage for me to do it if I’m not the best person to take that on. If it is timely I will work to empower others to take that on, if it is not timely I will find the right time to inquire with others and find the right time to move it into a prioritization. I do filter before doing this, so if I see that something is holistically low leverage (ie. not impactful no matter who takes it on, it doesn’t go through this process). 

Setting deliverables and maintaining accountability

After Ted and I had a few “top three” conversations we decided to systematize this to make the most out of these discussions in a repeatable way. The best systems are simple, so the system we developed was a template that captured the natural conversation that we were having week to week. 

Beginning of the week
– These are my top three priorities
– These are the measurable outcomes I want to get done this week that contribute to those priorities

End of the week
– This is where I got
– These are the next steps

Repeat

This birthed a simple tracker that we implemented and has been immensely helpful. It is a word document with a table of 9 total boxes (3×3). Column 1 = Priorities, Column 2 = Progress, Column 3 = Next Steps. After doing this for about a year we were looking for a good way to be proactive about addressing things that maybe weren’t going as well. There is a tendency to focus on the good things and minimize the bad, or to only address the challenges when they are big challenges. But we wanted to be proactive in calling these out and working through them, no matter how big or small, so we added a row at the bottom titled: What’s not going well. By having it as a weekly checkpoint it forces reflection on even those things that might not seem that bad but could grow into a bigger challenge. Once it’s in the box it gets fed through the prioritization matrix above to align on the prioritization and the actionable next steps to address it. 

Below is a screenshot of what this table looks like. 

In this template you will see two weeks. This is what this would look like at the end of one week/beginning of a new week, in this case Jan 9. 

You will see a full summary of the week prior (Jan 3-9) with progress and next steps filled in. The priorities for the next week (Jan 10-16 is filled out with the priorities and measurable outcomes but not yet any progress or next steps. I fill that out at the end of the week. If you are familiar with the OKR process, this is effectively weekly OKRs. 

A few things to note with this: 

Order matters: It isn’t enough to just have three in there. I have P1, P2, and P3. Often week to week the priorities will remain the same but the order or priority and the measurable outcomes change. 

Consistency and Flexibility: Some things will stay in the top three tracker for weeks at a time. If there’s a big project that might be P1 for a while, but conversely sometimes I need to be flexible and something might not yet be done but it will come out of the top three for a week or two. Like I said, this doesn’t mean that if something isn’t in the top three it doesn’t get touched, it means these are my top three. Something that is P4 might move into the tracker in one week and then get deprioritized the next week. 

Simplicity: You’ll notice constraints in the tracker. This is not meant to be an essay week to week. Measurable outcomes are constrained to three, and the progress / next steps are constrained to three as well. And these remain in bullet form. That doesn’t mean that this is a fast exercise, while the text is light, the process is important. I spend hours on this each week, which might seem like it is low leverage given the output of a simple table, but I would argue this might be one of my highest leverage activities. With this table filled out I am ruthless in my prioritization, I am clear on deliverables, and I scrutinize over the output. The table is the artifact, the process of completing it is the tool. 

Accountability: I use this with my leader at work which (1) keeps me accountable to set it week to week, and (2) it is a good tool to frame our discussions and calibrate on these items. Because of this we are always working in lockstep on what is top priority. Sometimes that means a conversation about reprioritizing, but often there is alignment on prioritization and then we talk about strategizing how to make the most of these priorities and deliverables. The “What’s not going well” row is also a great conversation starter to be proactive on these things. After piloting this myself I now use this with my direct reports and we’ve all found it to be helpful. This doesn’t need to be used professionally with your leader or with the people you lead. You could set this for yourself personally on whatever you are prioritizing in a given week. If you can it would still be great to have someone check in both to tell you when you’re crushing it and to ask the tough questions about prioritization. 

Like the Habit Tracker, this system has been immensely helpful in maximizing my productivity with key priorities. Like I noted above, it doesn’t need to exclusively be applied to work. This could be school, personal development, or even home life. The idea of a top three I find has been powerful. Documenting that with a simple system has helped me take my execution to the next level. 

Organizing and maximizing time

We are not mindless productivity robots. Everyone has times of the day that they are more and less productive. For myself, I find that first thing in the morning I am maximally productive on creative tasks. I find in the afternoons I have energy but I am less generative. I then typically have a lull in the late afternoon and I get a second wind in the evening between 6-8pm. I try to match my daily prioritization with the ebb and flow of my energy. 

I also try to minimize context switching as much as possible. Cal Newport talks about this concept in his book Deep Work where he shows that productivity requires a ramp up and once that is achieved, maintaining focus is both a productive and enjoyable experience. For me I find that 90 – 150 minutes is the prime window for me where I can get into a good state of flow and produce at a high output. 

Rather than work on a number of things concurrently, I try to pick one thing to go deep on, then pause, put that away and then move onto the next thing with the same level of focus. This system helps me get a lot more done in a shorter amount of time. I’d rather push one ball a mile than 10 balls 10 feet each. 

Combining these two insights, I try to block out my mornings for individual work where I’ll pick 1-2 things max. I then batch all of my meetings into one window in the early afternoon. At that point I typically have good energy coming off the high of generative focused time (in combination with multiple morning coffees) so I find I am even more effective in meetings – a win win. I then batch administrative tasks for the late afternoon when I am least creative. I then take a break to recharge and then I get back into things around 6pm when the creative juices start flowing again. 

I am fortunate to have a home gym so I use fitness as the break-point between sessions. Rather than do a long training session I do a short session between morning individual work and afternoon meetings, I then do another short session in the early evening which helps me reset and re energize for the 6-8 working session. Not everyone has that setup or finds fitness energizing so you could go for a short walk, read a book, play an instrument. Whatever takes your mind off of work for a short period and gives you energy. I’ve found this helpful to get set for the work session. 

Closing Thoughts

This may seem like a lot of complicated systems and frameworks. I tried to share more context in case there are subtle nuances that might be helpful, but if you only remember three things it is: 

  1. Pick three things to prioritize
  2. Write those down with measurable deliverables
  3. Work on your highest priority things during your times of highest productivity

I hope this is helpful. As always, feedback appreciated. 

Note: I wrote a post about building strong habits here, and professional development here that build off of this post. You may find those interesting too.

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