Productivity is a popular and expansive topic, and it’s also big business. From apps and books on the subject to courses and mastermind groups, tools and techniques for overseeing tasks and projects both personally and professionally are proliferating.
As creative freelancers, we live by deadlines. Being able to manage time on a project is necessary for our livelihood. So often, a project takes longer than we planned for and time seems to get away from us. How do we manage it?
My purpose in writing this is not to offer another system or list of how-tos. Rather, I hope to offer a few insights that you can consider for maintaining your own schedule. I am making no promises or guarantees, but sharing the approach that has worked for me and others who I’ve shared it with over the years. So allow me to begin with 4 premises:
First, we cannot actually manage time. Time is the one resource that we all have the same amount of. There is no way we can save time or make time. When it’s gone, we cannot get it back again. What we manage are the things — projects and actions — we allow to occupy our time. That alone is the most fundamental insight I can offer, and the foundation for how I steward my projects and to-do list.
Second, everyone’s system is unique. Considering everything from Getting Things Done to 7 Habits of Highly Effective People to Deep Work, to bullet journals, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. You need a system that is comfortable and intelligent for you.
Third, it’s not how much you do that makes you productive, it’s what you do. The idea is to do the right things every day that will move you forward on the road to accomplishing your goals, whether they involve meeting your client deadlines or buying a home.
Fourth, do the right things for the right reasons. When your heart is in something, you have more enthusiasm and creative entry for it, which makes it easier to remain focused through trial and error, and other setbacks.
So let’s look at some ways you might seriously consider improving your productivity:
The Weekly Brain Dump Session
If you’re like me, you have a lot of ideas coursing through your brain. I’ve learned that getting them all down on paper removes the stress of having to remember them. The paper remembers them for me. (I only need to remember where I put the paper). So I do a sort of brain dump every week on a page in my planner. My planner is old-school, but it works for me, because the action of writing instead of typing helps me process and sort my list. I make a list of everything I can think of, personal and professional. It’s important to think about your life as a whole when you brain dump. I don’t spend too long in making my list — 10-15 minutes is usual. I borrowed this process from David Allen’s Getting Things Done.
Sort and Organize
Once I have my list, I categorize and sort tasks and goals both on paper and in a digital management tool. I use Nozbe for this at the moment. I used to use OmniFocus, which is similar, but Nozbe seems to sync more easily and integrates with other digital tools including Evernote. (Side note: Both OmniFocus and Nozbe are excellent tools and include the concept of context, which goes deeper than a mere to-do list. Nozbe offers a subscription. OmniFocus is a single purchase license with paid upgrades.) I prefer to sort by life role, then goal or project. The concept of life roles or contexts makes sense to me. I gleaned this idea from a number of actual and virtual mentors, including Andy Stanley, Michael Hyatt, and Daren Laws. My time is actually divided between life roles, which are (at the moment) Creator, Business Owner, Teacher, Homeowner, Family Member, and Friend. Tasks and goals from my weekly brain dump list are added to existing projects or assigned as projects under one of those roles.
When you order your days on the basis of life roles, it’s easier to see how every aspect of your life is connected. Nothing is compartmentalized. You are able to maintain a big-picture understanding while you manage the details. Life roles change with the seasons of your life. At one point I was a student. At another point I was a parent. I am still a parent, but since my child is now an adult, the role of parent has changed to family member. I also have another role of Personal Stewardship or Foundation. It’s in that area that I work on daily habits that are fundamental to everything else. If I don’t take care of myself, nothing else will go well.
When you order your days on the basis of life roles, it’s easier to see how every aspect of your life is connected.
My system is a hierarchy. At the top are my life roles. Within each life role I place goals and projects, and into goals and projects I place actions and tasks. I keep track of things on paper as well as in Nozbe and Evernote. The digital backs up the paper, and vice versa.
I have developed the habit of reading and reflection. I begin most days with a mug of coffee and 15-30 minutes of quite time and journaling. This is tied to my faith, but it also allows me to begin the day in a reflective, thoughtful mode. This is also when review what I’ve already accomplished and decide on next steps that will shape my day. I plan out the day in advance of launching into it, pulling actions from my weekly overview onto my daily actions list.
Daily habits support your creative work. They are what you do to maintain health and mental clarity. I maintain daily habits of drawing and exercise.
Another of my management strategies is time blocking. I divide my days into 3 chunks: morning, afternoon and evening. I take care of errands, appointments and emails in the afternoon, when I’m least creative. Mornings and evenings are peak creative times for me, so those blocks are occupied by project work, teaching and coaching.
Tie Actions To Goals, and Goals To Your Why
You will be able to manage projects and actions better if you understand why they’re important. Every goal and task should be tied to a reason. If there is no reason for it, don’t do it. Remove it from your list. You’ll find that goals you once thought important but never got to become less important as the seasons of your life change. It’s no problem to simply let them go if they no longer support your why.
Guard Your Time
My final insight is to be careful to protect your time. Don’t allow the insignificant and irrelevant to suck your creative energy. Say No often. You cannot do everything, and you do not need to take on projects and commitments based on the expectations of others. Guard your family and personal time against your professional time, and vice versa. I don’t believe in balancing work and personal time, but rather in integrating the two. I have one life, which is made up of everything I choose to include in it. I need to be careful that I have enough creative energy when I need to be creative, and to walk away from the studio to enjoy the company of family and friends. I’m an introvert and therefore need a certain amount of solitude in order to re-fuel. In short, I need to protect pretty much all of my time against tasks and people that don’t matter, that don’t fit my why, or that drain me. I suspect you do, as well.
As we mature, and as connections and technology increase, life is more and more complex. We deal with distractions and interruptions all the time that can take us off course. Getting things done so that you can create meaningful work, craft the life you desire, and achieve your goals requires that you do the right things every day. Doing the right things requires a disciplined approach and focused effort which frees you to focus on the things that fulfill you and make the most sense for your life and work.
What is your favorite productivity or time management system? Have you customized it? If so, how? Have you created your own system? Leave a comment to share your insights.