April 05, 2009

Three Huge Principles for Personal Productivity

Written By Cary Schmidt

A few weeks ago a pastor asked me if he could look through my leather binder. I happily sat down and showed him page by page through this veritable extension of my arm—for it pretty much goes wherever I go all the time. Thinking back, I get asked about organization, personal productivity, and balance quite a bit—it seems that there are a whole bunch of us trying to grow and refine our lives in these areas. So in this post I want to share a few personal insights—big picture stuff that the Lord has taught me over the past two decades of striving for growth.

Principle #1—Personal Productivity and Organizational Systems are Dynamic—they are always in motion, evolving, and changing, or needing to change. Just about the time you think your system is really refined and functional, you’re going to outgrow it! This is the nature of the growth curve.

Here’s how it works. You start falling behind—too busy, spread too thin, in over your head. Then you get frustrated and your life becomes tense and sort of “on the ragged edge.” At that point, you either give up or grow. If you give up, something or someone always loses. Opportunities are passed. Relationships are missed. Greater doors of service, ministry, or effectiveness are closed. People you could have helped don’t get helped. Things you could have done for God, get left behind. Giving up is basically a choice to stay the way you are and where you are in life—to pass up on being stretched to greater potential and usefulness.

The alternative—growth—is when you embrace the added pressures and responsibilities with a desire to grow into them. (Not to neglect of family, etc.) This is when you buy books, go to seminars, research software, gadgets, technologies, and anything else that promises to help you have a slight edge. It’s when you sit back, get a big picture perspective, and restructure your life with the hopes that you can have a “break-through.” Your looking for that balance—but balance that still allows you to tackle bigger things more effectively. After a lot of prayer, seeking God, studying, and learning—growth happens. Your shoulders get broader, your structure gets refined, and you set up a system that helps you manage the new weights that fall to you.

As a result, you do more and you do it more effectively, which means you have set yourself up to hit another wall. And yes, about the time your new system is working really well—WHAM—you’re going to find yourself “in over your head” again. Just get ready—it’s going to happen so long as you are trying to reach your full potential. No system will work forever. The best system or the most strategic restructuring is going to have to be refined sooner than you think. So, if you desire to keep growing in personal productivity, get used to having to reinvent your system every so often.

Principle #2—Personal Productivity and Organizational Systems are Personal —What works for some time management guru or personal productivity author may or may not work for you. It would be great if everybody could fit their organizational style into the same box or the same system. That won’t happen. I’ve known people who really beat themselves up because they couldn’t make a Covey system or a Day Timer system work for them. Sure, sometimes there are issues of personal discipline or laziness—but not usually. In my experience, if you are a person trying to find greater order and productivity in your life, it’s not because you’re lazy! Usually those systems don’t work because they don’t think like YOU think! Your personal organization system MUST think like you think—or else it’s going to make your life more miserable, not more effective. If it doesn’t think like you think, then you’re just building a stick to beat yourself with.

Finding or creating a system that thinks like you do is a great challenge—but one worth undertaking. You’ll end up trying a lot of things just to find a few that work well for you. Illustration: My system of organization and my wife’s are completely different—but equally effective for our worlds and our brains. For instance, while I can tell you exactly how many youth workers are needed for a given event, I wouldn’t have a clue which medications my kids need and when. Our organization worlds, while closely connected, are quite different. Her system works for her, and mine works for me. And I would only bring stress if I tried to fit her to mine, or vice versa.

So, if it doesn’t work for you, and you’ve honestly tried—then shoot straight with yourself. Let it go. Try something else. There are ways your brain naturally tries to process, store, and retrieve information. (The whole left brain, right brain thing is a topic for another post.) Rather than trying to cram yourself into someone else’s system—seek to understand your way of processing information and develop a system that facilitates that process rather than getting in its way.

Principle #3—Personal Productivity and Organizational Systems are about Storing Information—in other words, most of us don’t need to be told or reminded what to think about right now. Usually we know exactly what we’re supposed to be thinking about this moment. The problem is, we are afraid of what we’re forgetting. And we expend so much energy trying to remember what we might forget, that it clutters the “now.” Rather than giving our best focus and energy to this moment and what’s going on right now in our lives and relationships, we cloud the “now” with the stress of trying to remember all the “later stuff”—like what’s coming this afternoon, who I’m supposed to call tomorrow, and what I promised to do next week.

Many systems try to make you plan now, when you probably don’t need a lot of help with now. What we primarily need is practical, effective, and reliable “storage tanks” for stuff we can’t afford to forget. It’s defining those storage tanks and making them reliable that ultimately defines our system. How do you categorize the “stuff” you’re trying to remember? How does your brain naturally try to retrieve it? Where do you look for it? What goes on the computer and what goes on paper and what goes on your phone? These are the questions that should determine your system. For instance, if you naturally look at your refrigerator door for a calendar more frequently than you would a computer—then use what works! What good is a computerized calendar that you never look at?

Honestly, it doesn’t matter where or how you store the information that you need—as long as you know where it is and you trust the system to remind you, when you need to know. You could have the most intricate system of files, techno gadgets, and software programs—but if you can’t train your brain to rely upon those systems, you are going to be frustrated. Example—for years I was taught to have an A-Z file of things that I need to save and reference later. My problem—I don’t think alphabetically and my brain is wired to instantly forget everything that I place into a drawer. So I would put stuff in my file—only to instantly forget it! Then every four years or so, I would clean out my file and spend an hour going, “Oh… I forgot I had this!” Duh—someone else’s system of “storing information” didn’t work for me.

The information we typically need falls into five basic categories—contacts, appointments, tasks, projects, future reference. So, a good system for you is any system that takes that information and places where you can easily find it when you need it. A good system makes you confident that your important information is safe and easily retrieved. This will give your brain the ability to really focus on what’s important right now. You can stop living afraid of what you might forget. This is one of the best reasons to develop a system that works for you—the freedom of focus.

These are fairly random thoughts that I’ve wanted to jot down for some time now. If they were just stupid—feel free not to comment. If you find yourself identifying with these thoughts, or if you would like me to expand on this post and share additional thoughts, then let me know. Also feel free to share other helpful comments!

Thanks for reading!