How does one stay productive? Productivity is a vastly discussed subject these days, and yet all it usually takes to be productive is find a system that works for you.

My own system was refined a lot during the past few years as I’ve used a bunch of different tools to help me stay on track with my goals.

The great news is, I finally got to the point where my process works well and gets me where I want to be, so that’s what I would like to share with you today.

1. What gets measured gets managed gets done

The easiest way to be productive is to be organized, and being organized does not have to be rocket science. Simplicity is actually the key to a sustainable routine.

My system is based on 4 pillars:

  • A list of yearly goals, i.e. “Visit 2 new countries this year” or “Learn one new skill per month”
  • A monthly review where I track my progress and create tasks accordingly for the following month
  • A weekly review where I plan my tasks for the following week and make sure I get closer to each of my goals
  • A daily to-do list with about 10-12 tasks to work on every day

I work on my yearly goals list once a year (how surprising). It’s a basic Google Spreadsheet where I list some items of my bucket list along with business, family & fitness goals.

It’s important to make your goals very specific, measurable, and time-boxed so that it’s easy to see whether you’re making some progress or not. I then review that list on the first day of each month and create specific tasks that will bring me closer to each goal.

For instance, here are the first 3 tasks I created under the category “Learn one new skill per month”:

  • List 12 skills I would like to learn this year
  • Find a tutorial or book to learn [skill #1] and purchase it
  • Read 10 pages of [book to learn skill #1]

And so it goes for each goal. The weekly review happens every sunday night and allows me to plan those tasks for the next week.

All of those tasks are listed in Todoist, which is my tool of choice to track all of my tasks. Then every single day I log in to Todoist and start working on my daily tasks.

I’m on a 208 days streak (and counting) of completing at least 8 tasks per day, and being on such a streak is a great motivational trick. Sometimes I would have only 7 tasks done by 6PM and would stretch myself to complete a final one just to keep the streak alive.

Funny how our mind works, isn’t it?

2. Don’t be afraid to change what does not work

Have you ever had tasks that would sit in your to-do list for a couple weeks and just seem to get postponed all the time? The weekly review is the time when I usually notice such a thing.

Most of the time, the solution is to break the problem task into smaller sub-tasks or to do some preliminary research before you can actually start working on it.

Procrastination often shows up when you’re not sure what to do about something or when that something seems too big to tackle.

For instance, “Write a blog post for Hacking the Matrix” can be such a scary task. What to write about? How much time is it going to take?

When such roadblocks show up, a preliminary task like “Brainstorm blog post ideas for 1 hour” or “Find at least 5 blog post ideas” make the “writing task” much lighter and thus easier to work on.

Sometimes, the process can be broken as well. I used to have a list of “monthly goals” tracked in a different tool called Trello. Those were basically intermediary goals in between my yearly goals list and my daily to-do list.

It was a pain to maintain and made me hate the monthly review process, so I got rid of it and simplified my routine for the best.

3. Work to live, don’t live to work

Sustainability matters. I would suggest to not put too many items in your to-do list.

My own productivity level varies from 8 to 14 tasks per day. Some tasks take 5 minutes or less, some 2 hours or more. On average, each task is about 45 minutes long. That’s what I learned along the way.

We also need breaks, and I decided to make my breaks mandatory by adding them as a daily task that also contributes to my fitness goal: “Go out for a 20 minute walk”. It works like a charm!

It’s always possible to complete more tasks every day, but would you rather be constantly productive than tackle 20 tasks on Monday, and then be so tired on Tuesday that you could only complete 5 or 6 of them? And then fear Wednesday because of the additional workload that wasn’t taken care of on Tuesday?

Regularity builds momentum, which in turns builds a productivity streak. I just like opening Todoist and take a rewarding look at my productivity chart.

Note that I do slow down during week-ends, where tasks are usually more “fun” (like “Go to the state fair with the kids”):

Todoist Completed Tasks

When you trust your own process and know yourself well enough, things just start rolling painlessly. You just know how much you can do, and trust yourself that everything will get done.

4. Gamification is a powerful thing

Todoist has that feature called Todoist Karma. It’s basically a system that rewards you with points when you complete, create or edit tasks. You can also lose points when a task is completed after its deadline. There’s literally nothing to win, no money reward or anything.

Just like with video games, we humans love to earn points and get to the next level. I just feel good to be a “Grand Master” of productivity:

Todoist Karma

If points are not your thing, there may be a similar kind of reward that works for you.  For instance, you could buy yourself a snack or a great meal when you reach your daily goal.

5. Have big goals and take baby steps

That’s the most important advice I could ever give you. It’s so much easier to work on goals like “Visit one new country” than “Improve my business marketing”.

Your goals have to be something you want really bad. They have to be exciting. They have to make perfect sense to you so that working towards achieving them becomes a pleasant journey. It’s just not possible to be productive if you hate the tasks you have to work on.

Bigger goals usually don’t happen overnight so it’s OK if it takes time for you to get there. Remember why you’re doing what you’re doing, keep the end goal in mind and things will be much easier.

If your goal is to travel to a foreign country, baby steps include, but are not limited to:

  • Find which country you would like to visit
  • Find out if there is any specific visa requirement
  • What is the best season to get there?
  • What’s the average airfare for that destination?

A beautiful thing happens when you start taking those baby steps. Your goal, which once seemed to be a dream or a far-away destination, appears to get closer and closer: “What? It’s only a $200 roundtrip ticket to get there in April?”. It becomes something you can actually achieve. You get more excited about it as you slowly build your path towards it.

Remember, you don’t have to see the entire path clearly. Move forward and trust that the path will build itself along the way.

Morpheus : I can only show you the door. You’re the one that has to walk through it.


Photo: Time Lost by Matt Gibson

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