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My Personal Productivity System – How it Works

I've had a few people ask me questions about how I use all the tools I do in a systematic way.  I may sometimes be seen as using too many tools and plugins.  One of the initial criticisms I've heard from people is that it takes too long to use all the tools.  I disagree.  At first, it does take awhile to learn to use a new tool.  It also sometimes takes awhile to learn which tool to use for what, since many tools overlap in functionality is seemingly conflicting ways.  All that stated, I have personally found a system that works very well for me. 

Since the questions I keep getting are how my system works - that's the answer I'm providing here now.  Please keep in mind that this is just what works for me, based on my situation and needs.  If you're just getting started in a formalized system of personal productivity management, you may want to try my way, but I am confident you'll change things and tweak things for your situation.  You are the only one who can determine what helps you get stuff done effectively, efficiently, and with the results you need.

One quick word of caution – this is an extremely long post.  However, I don’t want to give anyone the wrong impression.  Tools alone won’t do anything except complicate your life.  You need the principles behind the tools integrated into your life before the tools begin to perform magic.  If you automate or speed up the wrong actions, you only end up getting the wrong results faster.

What stuff do I have to deal with?

I am an “information worker“ or “knowledge worker“ and my personal life also consists of information activities.  Of these activities, they come from 2 basic sources.  The first form comes from me.  These are self-initiated activities.  They are comprised of values, mission, goals, projects, tasks, etc. that I initiate based upon my own determination.  The second form is ALL the stuff that comes from some extrinsic entity.  They are comprised of e-mail, voice mails, snail mail, meeting requests, conference calls, personal interactions, etc.  Regardless of the source of activity, any personal productivity system that works must be able to manage all of these activities.

Laying the Intrinsic Foundation: Part 1

Because most of our lives are so busy with the extrinsically generated activities and workflow, I highly encourage everyone to take a couple of days (or more, if needed) to lay the foundation for your intrinsically generated activities before you start using the system to manage extrinsically generated activities.  There are many reasons for this, probably one of the greatest being the tendency to focus on the urgent activity requests from outside because they are urgent, rather than those activities that will bring the greatest benefit to you personally.  For help in laying this foundation, I highly encourage everyone to read and adopt Stephen Covey's “7 Habits of Highly Effective People“ model.  (Yes, I also highly recommend his relatively new book – “The 8th Habit”). You can read the book or listen to the CD for help in understanding the concepts. 

Then, I encourage using FranklinCovey PlanPlus for Outlook 3.0 and utilizing the tools there to define the foundation of your personal productivity system within the tool.  With the tool, I outline my values (I define my values in 7 main categories, each with a mission statement).  I define my personal mission statement, family mission statement, career mission statement, friendship mission statement, role at my employer mission statement, community mission statement, and spiritual mission statement.)  You can see my mission statements for examples here (I have left off my role at my employer mission statement because it includes confidential information).

Based upon my values and missions in each area, I then create a set of goals.  I try to create goals within each mission area.  I start with a goal setting process I learned from Jim Rohn, a well-renowned “business philosopher”.   Basically, the process says to think of as many goals as you possibly can for anything you could ever dream for yourself.  Make sure you have at least 50.  The first 5-10 will be easy to come up with, but the value will come from the last 25, because you will dig really deep in your mind to come up with them and they will be surprisingly good.  Then, go through your goals and mark 1, 3, 5, 10+ next to each goal.  The number is how many years you think it will take for you to reach that goal.  Don’t spend too much time on this part; just go with your gut. 

Now, I take these goals and enter them in the Goals section of FranklinCovey PlanPlus.  I set the date field for the time I specified for the goal completion (1, 3, 5, 10+) and keep the goals sorted by date in ascending order so without scrolling the list, I always see my most near-term goals.  I review these goals in my weekly planning process.  More on that later, but it’s important to review your goals at least weekly (daily is better if you have the time).

Laying the Intrinsic Foundation: Part 2

I’m separating this part from part 1 for a key reason.  Part 1 above (values/mission and goals) should happen first.  They are the cornerstone of who you are and who you want to be.  Without them, you have no way of knowing if you’re managing yourself productively for any real purpose.

Based upon my values/mission and my goals, I use a Covey principle called a Compass.  Just like the name implies, it provides a guidance of which directions you need to focus on.  Again, I highly recommend you read Covey’s book or at least read the excerpts from it that are included in the PlanPlus help files, which give greater depth to this topic than I will here.  My Compass defines the roles I play in all areas of my life.  I’ve chosen to have my roles align with my mission statements (as identified above) since that helps all of this integrate into accomplishing the most valuable things for me personally.  Then, every week (as part of my weekly planning) for each role, I identify the 3-5 most important things I need to do within each role.  This helps ensure I’m living a balanced life and accomplishing across all key areas of my life. 

Covey discusses this at length in his book and tools, but the compass works on the principle of “big rocks” and “little rocks”.  In short, say you have 7 big rocks, 20 little rocks, and a bunch of sand.  Your mission is to get them all into a bucket.  Now, analogize the big rocks are your roles, the little rocks are your projects, the sand is all your tasks, and the bucket is your time/productivity/life.  How can you ensure you optimize your life?  Start by putting the big rocks into your bucket, then the little rocks, then the sand.  If you do it in any other order, you won’t be able to fit some of your big rocks into the bucket at all.  Following this principle has made all the difference in my life and the results that have followed and continue to follow.

Try to get any preconceived notion of projects out of your head for just a few minutes.  Depending on your work, you most assuredly have projects of some sort that you work on.  We all play different roles in those types of projects.  However, we’re talking here about your personal productivity projects.  These are really nothing more than the next logical sub-units of your goals.  When you want to accomplish your goals, the best thing to do is to break them down into steps.  The first breakdown should be into projects.

I define projects as any multi-step process of tasks that lead to a goal.  When determining my projects, I try to think of 3-5 things that if I did them would lead me to achieving my goal. 

The Productivity Begins: Operating with the System Part 1

Ok, so here’s probably the response that most people were looking for in their questions.  However, I believe the preparatory work must be done similar to how I identified it previously before any of this stuff will help you achieve anything meaningful.

There are probably dozens of tools out there for managing all the things we’re going to be talking about.  I use a few that I’ve found work great for me.  These, to stress again, are the ones that work for me and how and why I use them.  By all means experiment and see what works best for you.  Each of these products has numerous competitors.  I won’t mention them, because this is already probably the longest blog post in history and I’ve already found I prefer the tools I use and mention here.

I start with a product called MindManager from Mindjet.  This is a brainstorming tool that enables me to draw out my life plan.  I add my roles at the first hierarchical level, then sub-level contains my goals, then sub-levels of each goal contain my projects.  I then further break projects down into tasks – usually just high-level ones at first in MindManager.  The product costs about $275 from an online vendor.  Don’t buy it direct from them, or it will cost you $350.

I export the MindManager map to Microsoft Project.  I find MindManager great for creating a high-level view of things, but not so good at managing task-level items.  Nothing is as intuitive and easy to use in creating tasks for projects, assigning and managing resources, reporting, progress tracking, etc. as Microsoft Project.  Further, it’s inherent ability to integrate seamlessly into the other tools I use makes it the clear-cut winner in my opinion.

I’ve had people ask me about PlanPlus projects features.  This is a great idea from FranklinCovey, but implemented terribly.  There is no meaningful way to manage projects in PlanPlus, try as you might.  The worst thing in the world is to have all of your projects and related tasks organized in that tool and suddenly have them vanish when you re-prioritize your tasks or any number of things that you will do from time to time.  As much as I love PlanPlus (which is quite a bit btw) I recommend NOT using the Projects feature in it.

I use TaskLynx from a company called Critical Path to integrate my Microsoft Project tasks into Outlook tasks.  Within Project, I click on the TaskLynx icon and it will synchronize tasks from Project into Outlook.  This synchronization is bi-directional, so as you make progress or complete a task in Outlook, the next TaskLynx synchronization will update the Project plan.  All the necessary and relevant fields synchronize, so you’ll have task notes, due dates, % complete, etc. all in synch.  The tool only synchs tasks that are assigned to you, but it is flexible enough that you can customize how this occurs.  This is an absolutely awesome tool and nearly indispensable to me.  The main reason being, I do most of my productivity activities within Outlook and the less software and tools I have to interact with, the more time I can spend on those activities.  I highly recommend this software.

Once in Outlook, tasks can be difficult to work with.  In case you haven’t noticed, by following my system, you are going to have hundreds of tasks.  The 3 – level priority system in Outlook is insufficient (imo) to manage this many tasks (even in 2003, but big time in older versions).   So, I use the task prioritization structure of PlanPlus to prioritize tasks.  PlanPlus allows A1, A2…B1, B2…C1, C2…etc. prioritization.  The idea (again going back to Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits process) is to always focus on the highest priority task.  Organizing your tasks this way and then following the plan will accomplish this for you.

I use TaskLine from a company called Results Ware, Ltd to schedule my Outlook tasks into my Outlook calendar.   While it is possible to work from your prioritized task list without having the tasks scheduled into your calendar, I don’t recommend it.  The reason being is that it is sometimes easy to look at a set of 10-15 tasks and think, “no problem, I can do this one later or accept another task from somebody.”  When you schedule your tasks into your calendar, you quickly see how much effort it will really take to complete your tasks.   TaskLine also adds a tab to your tasks which allow you to track the time you estimate it will take to complete task (which is essential to complete in order to schedule them into your calendar) as well as other additional task metrics.

The Productivity Begins: Operating with the System Part 2

Now that you have the system working, you have to now incorporate all of the extrinsic stuff that flies at you all day, every day.  You’ll continue to use (very frequently) the tools I mentioned in part 1 above, but that still doesn’t tell you how to process the information and get it into your system in the first place.

If you’re like me, you get a LOT of e-mail.  I’m in the 200-400 a day range now.  That’s not bragging, it’s a fact of how my industry and my company work.  Much of it is good to know or keep for reference and some of it requires action of some type – whether now or in the future.  I also get quite a bit of voice mail.  Something has to be done with that as well – with the same considerations as e-mail in terms of processing it into and through the system.  For any system to work, it has to be able to manage this effectively so you don’t have to worry about if anything “falls through the cracks”.  The peace of mind alone to using this system is well worth the investment of money and time to implementing, learning, and using it.

I use the David Allen Getting Things Done methodology (or at least most of it) when processing information.  I highly recommend reading David’s book, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity and buying the Outlook plug-in that allows you to implement it into your system.  It’s an easy read and one that will change your perspective on your ability to control the activities and information in your life and work.  In essence, the information processing methodology he discusses boils down to a simple process.  To give you some idea of how powerful this process is, I end every day with ZERO e-mail in my Inbox and ZERO voice mail.

So, in a nutshell…

Whenever a new piece of information comes at you from an extrinsic source (whether e-mail, voice mail, meeting requests, whatever…) determine if it is something that requires action from you and if you are the right person to take the necessary action.  If yes, is it something that will take 2 minutes or less?  If yes, do it now.  If not, is it something that requires a single action or multiple actions?  If a single action, then create an Outlook task for it.  If a multiple action, create a project plan for it (or as I do, create an Outlook task to create a Project plan for it).  If not, is it something that might be valuable as reference later?  If yes, store it in a reference sub-folder of your Inbox (I recommended categorizing sub-folders by category within the reference sub-folder as well.)  If not, then delete it immediately.  If you are not the appropriate person to do it, then I recommend creating the Outlook task and delegating it to the appropriate person (that way you can get status updates and monitor the activity occurring on the task).  There is a lot more to David Allen’s process, but that is in a nutshell the part that I utilize daily when processing information.

You might be thinking that is great for e-mail, but what about voice mail?  I type my voice mail notes into the PlanPlus daily record.  Then, I process them just like I do e-mail as per the process above.  This way, all of my voice mail is saved and searchable as well (btw, go get Microsoft’s Desktop Search tool, if you haven’t already.  It’s a lifesaver).  If an action is required on a voice mail, I make a task for that action (or Project plan) and it becomes part of my system.

Another important note on how I process e-mail, I don’t always approach it chronologically.  To do so would negate the whole notion of working on the most important items at any given time rather than just the most urgent at any given time.  If I’m out of the office in meetings for any significant period of time or engaged in other activity, I can’t just sit there and monitor my e-mail or voice mail.  That means it bunches up and I have to process a lot of it in one block of time.  If you find yourself in a similar situation, I recommend blocking calendar time for checking e-mail and processing it.  I use a tool called ClearContext Inbox Manager from a company called ClearContext Corporation.  This tool examines several parameters (customizable) and re-orders your Inbox by priority.  Some of the parameters include Contact Priority (which you define at the contact level), Topic Assignment (can move messages to sub-folders automatically if they’re part of a threaded e-mail discussion), Scoring (based on known addresses, message and thread priority, thread participation by you, and message directness).  This tool is a great way to ensure your processing the most important stuff first, which means you can take your most important actions first.

Getting the Most from the System

I believe the best way to get maximum value from this system is to apply some formal planning processes to it.  I choose a yearly review, monthly review, weekly review and daily review process.  I recommend you start with that if you haven’t done much formal planning in the past, but you’ll want to be flexible enough with yourself to be successful given your unique situations and needs.

You’ll also want to ensure above all else, that you have an integrated system that provides full access to your information regardless of whether you’re on the road, in an airport, at a lunch, at the office, at home, or wherever.  This can be accomplished fairly easily as I’ll describe in a moment.

Yearly Review

As the name implies every year I sit down and start the planning process.  I usually do this at the traditional “New Year’s Resolution” time because it is a good starting point.  I’m usually refreshed from being away from work during the holidays and having spent time with family and friends.  The Yearly Review for me, is basically a 2 day process where I evaluate my values/mission, goals (happy to have accomplished last years and adding more for this year), project successes and failures, and my overall satisfaction or lack thereof in getting the most important things in my life done.  I take this time to make sure the foundation is set for the coming year in all the ways that I identified (much) earlier in this post.

Monthly Review

At the end of every month, I sit down and evaluate all the same elements as the yearly review, but do it with a 1 month time perspective.  What do I want/need to accomplish this month?  I spend about 2 hours on this with the result being a list of goals (that I print, yes print) and put in the back of my planner binder (yeah, the paper kind – more on this in a moment.)  I also get a feeling of alignment and readiness for the coming month which helps shape future planning.

Weekly Review

No matter which book or system you use, they all recommend a weekly review process of some sort.  I’m a huge believer in it as well.  I have my entire week planned out before it begins, so I can be focused on executing throughout the week rather than worrying about planning.  I spend about 1 hour on this process.  In my weekly review, I look over how successful in doing what I set out to last week I was and I prioritize tasks and schedule my calendar for the coming week.  I also take this time to create my “un-schedule” as discussed in great detail in the book “The Now Habit: A Strategy for Overcoming Procrastination”.  Basically, an un-schedule is the scheduling of all the fun and/or personal items in your calendar.  Here, I block out family time, sleep time, commuting time, and extra-curricular activities that are important to me personally.  If you use Exchange in your company, you’ll want to be sure to mark all of these as private appointments.

Daily Review

The daily review is a quick (15-20 minutes) look at the tasks and schedule that sits in front of you for the day.  I make sure my tasks are prioritized accordingly, I make sure I have driving directions (and copied into my commute appointments in my calendar) for any meetings I have to travel to, I make sure I am familiar with any notes or other background information for meetings that day, etc.  It’s a quick look to get your day started on the right foot.

Use a Single, Integrated System

One of the most important aspects of a system for personal productivity is to have only one system.  I’m not referring to accessing it in a single way, I’m referring to the system itself being integrated and accessible via different mediums.

For me, I have 3 laptops that I use frequently and every day.  Two of them are work machines and 1 is a personal machine.  For my system to work, all of my personal and professional activities must be contained and synchronized on all 3 machines.  I also have a paper-based planning system (Franklin Covey, of course) that needs to be integrated.  I also have a SmartPhone that must be integrated. 

While there are several ways to accomplish this integration, I’ll describe the method I use.  Fortunately, my company uses Microsoft Exchange Server for our e-mail messaging and calendaring solution.  The products I use all work great in this environment, so my 2 work systems are kept synchronized automatically.  My home system does not connect to Exchange though.  So, I synchronize my SmartPhone (could be a PocketPC also) with one of my work machines.  This automatically updates Exchange, which ensures my other work machine is also synchronized.  Then, I also synchronize with my home system.  This keeps all of my personal and professional tasks, appointments and contacts synchronized across all of my environments.  (again, make sure you use the “private” feature for items you don’t want co-workers to see).  This effectively provides me a single electronic system.

I mentioned I also use a FranklinCovey paper planner.  I feel this is important because it allows quick views into my tasks and calendar regardless of my connectivity or location.  I use PlanPlus to print out my “daily pages” each morning (or each night) and put them into my paper planner system.  This way, I have an integrated system whether paper-based or electronic access is available. 

Ok, well I could go on with how using Microsoft SharePoint in addition to these tools and processes could make all of this information available via the web and across your teams for collaboration, but I think I’ve already exceeded most readers’ attention spans.  I simply didn’t want to give anyone the idea that buying a couple of plug-ins was going to make you productive or that reading a book would somehow make you a master of multi-tasking.  As in anything worthwhile, a personal productivity system requires the right way of thinking, processing, acting, and managing – with lots of patience and practice.  The tools help greatly, but they only can help if you use a system to begin with.  Good Luck and I hope this answers most of the questions asked by people!



Posted on Friday, August 26, 2005 1:36 PM | Back to top

Comments on this post: My Productivity System (for those who have been asking)

# re: My Productivity System (for those who have been asking)
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Outstanding. I have just scanned this, but intend on giving this a serious read. Thanks for taking the time to post it, because it is useful to see how others approach things of this nature that seem easy and intuitive, but are essentially difficult without the proper attention.

Nice to see verbose=on from a fellow geek and know that not all secrets of the Sales Ninja are secrets. You are putting me to shame with the length of this post.


p.s. I'm checking on Greene and Kaku. I'll be talking to some superstring guys that I trust shortly. Kaku is published in a series (Graduate Texts in Physics; publisher - Springer) that I respect. I own a considerable number of books (of a possible 224 volumes) in the Graduate Texts in Mathematics series from Springer.
Left by optionsScalper on Aug 26, 2005 3:07 PM

# re: My Productivity System (for those who have been asking)
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They OS,

speaking of your PS line - a new book I've started reading that I think you'd absolutely love is from Roger Penrose (who you've probably heard of). He goes through the trouble of using mathematics to explain all of the physics of the universe. It's an 1,100 page book, with about half of it dedicated to the math behind the science. You'd appreciate his love for math and his belief that it's the mathematical models that enable ethics and aesthetics, etc. Check it out, it's called "The Road to Reality" and is avaible via Amazon.
Left by Brian Tinkler on Aug 26, 2005 4:56 PM

# re: My Productivity System (for those who have been asking)
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awesome..really talks a lot about scheduling.Even we people are working for deadline and failed many times. please share something about meeting deadline successfully in IT Industry.
Left by Maheshkumar.R on Aug 27, 2005 2:57 AM

# re: My Productivity System (for those who have been asking)
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This is great. Thanks for spending the time to lay this out.

One thing that has been working for me is using MS Outlook notes. I used to keep a journal for meeting notes, etc. and now I just use the note feature in MS Outlook. It is much easier to find notes using the search engine whereas, before, I would have to flip pages to locate my notes.
Left by J Sarkies on Sep 01, 2005 3:10 AM

# re: My Productivity System (for those who have been asking)
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I may have posted twice since I couldn' see any indication that it went through the first time...
I noticed that you follow Allen's GTD. Are you aware of ResultsManager from Gyronix? It's designed to integrate MindManager with GTD. David Allen evidently likes it and uses it...
Thanks again,
Hobie Swan
Left by Hobart Swan on Sep 09, 2005 1:25 PM

# re: My Productivity System (for those who have been asking)
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Unless i misunderstand something - it seems to me that there is a lot of overlap between how you use PlanPlus and MindManager (Goals, Compass, Review etc). Could you give some input on how you use the two together?

Left by Hans S on Sep 14, 2005 6:25 AM

# re: My Productivity System (for those who have been asking)
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For a simpler approach to setting goals and being more productive, you may want to check out, a very nicely built web app designed for tracking goals and todo lists, and supports time tracking too. It’s clear, focused, easy to navigate, worth a try.
Left by harry on Dec 02, 2009 1:08 PM

# re: My Productivity System (for those who have been asking)
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