Systems: A Simple Recipe for Productivity
Blackbird Head of Productivity Clark Carter’s guide to keep you on track.
I have a pretty simple recipe for productivity: know where to spend your time, and then leverage systems to help you stick to plan.
Knowing where to spend your time is fairly straight forward.
- Set goals: figure out what you want to achieve. This is a whole post in itself. I try to limit it to 3 goals (or less) to maintain focus.
- Prioritise: stack rank your goals. Handy for when you can't do it all and need to choose what to stop working on.
- Break it down: make big projects manageable. I find month-long projects are about the right size.
- Schedule: block out time to work on them. This sounds obvious, but one that many people don't do.
Getting organised is the easy part.
Anyone can spend the weekend getting their life in order. The hard part comes Monday morning when you walk into work and all your plans go out the window.
When "real life" happens, there's a good chance you'll spend the rest of the week putting out fires, dealing with new tasks you didn't anticipate, and generally reacting to the flood of emails, messages and inputs being fired at you from every direction.
How do I deal with this? Systems, that's how.
You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.
James Clear, Atomic Habits
It's great to have ambitious goals, but make sure you have systems in place to help you achieve them.
Here are some of the systems and rituals I use to keep on track and handle the flood of day-to-day inputs. Some of these might sound obvious, but sometimes it's good to be reminded.
Track your projects at a high level
It's easy to get lost in the weeds of daily tasks. Make sure you come up for air regularly to re-calibrate on your high level goals and projects.
Block out time in your calendar for your most important work
Put it in the calendar and don't ignore it. Defend this time. I have an hour of reading time blocked out every morning and work hard to keep this time for its intended purpose.
Triage your thoughts in realtime
Don't fill your brain up with a cloud of todo's, thoughts, ideas and things to remember. Get them out of your head as quickly as you can and put them where they belong.
- Tasks go to your todo list (I use Things3)
- Meetings and catchups go to your calendar (Google Calendar)
- Thoughts and notes go to your notes app (I use Notion and Bear)
- I use the Drafts app as the initial "get it out of your head the second you think of it" place, then triage accordingly.
Build a second brain
If you're taking notes. Make sure they're organised so you don't need to think very hard when deciding where to store a specific note, and can quickly retrieve it when you want find something.
I use the PARA system to organise my notes.
If you repeat a task more than once, ask yourself if you can automate it. Zapier is great for this and works particularly well for any admin tasks like if you need to send recurring messages, or copy text from one app to another.
Manage your energy levels
At a basic level, figure out if you're a morning or evening person and schedule your tasks accordingly. I'm a morning person so make sure I do all my deep thinking and analytical work before lunch, and any creative work in the afternoon.
Keep your workspace tidy
I sound like my mum here, but a tidy desk is a tidy mind. Get rid of that stack of old coffee cups pronto.
This is harder than it sounds, and one I struggle with. Aim to start and finish one task at a time, rather than starting 6 things in tandem and not finishing any.
Context switching is insanely ineffective. Turn off notifications on your phone and laptop. This will put the power with you to decide when and how you check your emails and messages. I do a quick check of email when I finish one task and before starting another.
I put on headphones and listen to ambient soundtracks, or thunderstorm sounds when doing deep work. It's simple but helps get me into a flow state. Try brain.fm
Don't burn yourself out; recharge regularly. For example, I swim for 30 minutes at lunch each day. This acts like a circuit breaker and allows me to power through the remaining few hours in the afternoon.
Hour of Power
Tackle those tasks you've been avoiding by making it fun. I schedule an hour every week with the entire team at Blackbird to sit down and do those annoying tasks we have been putting off. We start by quickly saying what we'll each do, and then we just get to work and don't really talk much after that, but work in each others company (via Zoom) It's part social, part accountability.
Plan the night before
Start each day with a clear plan. I spend 5 minutes at the end of each day going through my tasks and meetings for the following day. Waking up with a clear plan has a huge impact for the remainder of the day.
Start with the most important task
Speaking of planning your day, aim to tackle the most important task first. This reduces the very likely scenario of being busy all day, but not ever starting the big thing you actually wanted to get done. Try identifying the one thing you need to do each day that will be a success even if you do nothing else.
- Know where to spend your time
- Leverage systems to achieve goals
- Be consistent
Watch Clark explore these concepts in more detail below (or get the deck here)