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My productivity system and how I process ideas.

The modern day knowledge worker’s job is to solve problems. Doing this without a process is like swimming using only your arms. You will get where you are going, but it’s going to be slow and exhausting.

I have been working to diversify my income streams which means I not only have more projects, I also have more unrelated projects on my plate than I am used to. My old systems for staying productive no longer work due to multiple problems competing for space in my mind. It is difficult to stay focused on one project at a time, especially when a great idea for another project pops into my head. I needed a system to stay focused and keep my energy level up.

The system I came up with (which I am still tweaking) is a solution to these problems. This article will cover my system on a high level. Please let me know if you have any questions or want me to go into more detail on any of these items.

Principles

It’s necessary to have a set of guiding principles to serve as my decision making framework. This way, when a situation comes up, I have a ready made response to how I am going to handle it.

Know my target.

This is one hundred percept copied from “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen R. Covey. He puts it this way:

“Begin with the end in mind” is based on the principle that all things are created twice. There’s a mental or first creation, and a physical or second creation to all things. Take the construction of a home, for example. You create it in every detail before you ever hammer the first nail into place. You try to get a very clear sense of what kind of house you want. If you want a family-centered home, you plan to put a family room where it would be a natural gathering place. You plan sliding doors and a patio for children to play outside. You work with ideas. You work with your mind until you get a clear image of what you want to build.

I waste time and energy when I skip this step. While there are multiple solutions to a problem and multiple ways to do something, anything that does not take me directly towards my goal is wasted energy. Being laser-focused on the outcome I want means I can be more precise about the inputs that will create that outcome.

Reverse engineer the problem.

Did you do mazes as a kid? I did. I loved them, but I have a confession to make. Instead of starting at the beginning, I worked my way backwards from the finish. Do you know why? There are fewer dead ends when you work a maze backwards. The same is true in almost every problem you want to solve or goal you want to achieve. If you start by working backwards, it’s easier to discover the path.

Capture random thoughts.

I will be the first to admit that most of my ideas are terrible. That being said, I believe every idea is valuable. I also believe that every idea is a major distraction to the important work I need to accomplish. It’s like my brain serves them up as a last ditch effort to procrastinate. For both of these reasons, I created a system to capture ideas for later the moment they enter my thought. I simply open my task manager, Apple Reminders, enter the idea as a task in a list called “Inbox” and go right back to work.

Hold a daily and weekly review.

Every day and week starts and ends with a review. First, I look at all of the ideas I entered in my “Inbox” list and decide to either take action or add it to a project. Next, I look through my individual projects to determine if tasks are important and need to be scheduled or unimportant and need to be cancelled.

I also use templates in the Day One app for a morning and evening reflection routine. In the morning I write out what I am grateful for, what will make the day great, and an affirmation. In the evening I write 3 things that happened and how I could have made that day better.

Turn on Do-Not-Disturb while working on important tasks.

This one is simple. I don’t want notifications distracting me when I am working on important work.

Organizational rhythm

My rhythm helps me make sure I actually get work done. It also helps me make sure I am working on the right things. This structure has been tweaked over time, and I feel like I finally have it tuned to really help me be actually get things done.

Create weekly priorities.

This starts on Sunday night. I sit down and write out the things that must get done this week. These become projects with deadlines set for Friday in Apple Reminders. It’s really this simple. I make sure I know what I need to absolutely complete.

Dump my brain out every day.

I compare this process to cleaning out a closet or garage. You have to take everything out before you can figure out what needs to stay or go. This clearing out process creates room for me to think the rest of the day. I open up Day One and start writing anything that comes to mind until I reach 1,000 words. Most of it is junk. Some if it turns into ideas that I capture and consider later, and an even smaller part gives me clarity over how I feel or a problem I am working on. When I miss a day, I am noticeably more distracted.

Create daily priorities

I do this the same way I create weekly priorities. I look at my projects in Apple Reminders and add assign 3 major tasks for today. Sometimes I do this at the end of the day for the following day, but most often I do this immediately following my morning brain dump.

Schedule my time in blocks.

I am most productive when I schedule important tasks on a calendar. Since I am morning person, I block out my problem solving and creation related tasks for the morning and I save the afternoon for admin and other tasks. Also, it is very important that I allow for open time and free time. If I pack my day with back to back blocks, I get less done because I end up giving in to distractions. Brains need breaks too.

Problem solving framework

I approach everything I do as a problem to solve. This is not a negative statement. It’s simply a thought framework which helps me be more effective. Going back to my principles, I state a goal (know my target) and then get started on an outline (reverse engineer the problem).

My favorite way to do this is with a mind-map and for that I used MindNode. I love it because I can easily export a Markdown file in outline form into my favorite writing app, Ulysses. I start with the problem, create a branch for the goal, and then start brainstorming to reverse engineer the problem. If I get stuck, I use a powerful question I picked up from Tim Ferriss: “What if…?” This gives me permission to come up with stupid solutions which can lead to good solutions.

I end with creating a project in Apple Reminders with a task for the next best 3 steps. Or, if it’s a writing project, I export a Markdown file into Ulysses to serve as my outline for writing out content.

Content writing framework

I covered a little bit of how I start a writing project in the previous section, so go back and read it if you skimmed.

I used to wing it when I wrote, but thanks to some great instruction from Donald Miller, I have a more effective means of writing copy.

First, I make sure I have a controlling idea. I need to make sure you, the reader feels a certain way after reading what I wrote. In this article, I want you to understand how I organize my time and tasks so you will gain some ideas of how you can do the same. Other times it may be that I want someone to buy something, sign up for something, or learn a lesson.

Second, I use the rules of story. There is too much information to go into here, but the simple explanation is this. There is a proven framework that captures human attention and keeps them reading more. Story principles are what make click bait so irresistible.

Third, I move from outline to messy draft to revised draft to final draft. Notice I say messy draft. This is important because again, it gives me permission to write poorly, get ideas out, and come back again. Often, my messy draft is a list of ideas. Revised drafts are where my controlling idea comes into play. Anything I wrote that does not support the controlling idea gets cut.

Once my writing is as clear as possible, I publish and move on.

I hope this helps you. Let me know on Twitter if you have any questions or would like me to dig into any of these areas in greater detail.