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Systems for Controlled Chaos

February 19, 2016

Productivity. Is that a dirty word?

How about Right Effort? That sounds more Buddhist-y, right?

Or, if you prefer, we can just call it Getting Shit Done.

No matter what we call it, a lot of people struggle with it, myself included. Which is why I set about to systematically study the topic a few years ago and why I now teach others whenever I can. So here goes, first lesson in controlled chaos guided by three questions.

What’s your system?

Five years ago, I’d have said “System? I don’t have a system,” even though I kinda did.

If you get anything done now, even if it’s not as much as you want or harder than you’d like, you have some kind of system. It could be all in your head, on paper, in a computer, or scattered in different places, but it’s there. The first step towards designing a good productivity system is determining what you already have.

Where does work originate? Where do you keep track of it? How do you know when you’re done? A good productivity system includes inputs, processes, and outputs. That’s the theory.

In practice, your system probably includes email, calendars, task lists, schedules, and plans whether electronic, paper, or memory-based. How you manage each component in your system can have an impact on your productivity. I’ll cover things like managing email and creating daily plans elsewhere. For now, let’s just see if we can identify the components.

I’ll use myself as an example, starting with inputs. Work comes from three main places in my system: syllabi, emails, and meetings.

Once I’ve captured a task from one of my inputs, I have to keep track of it and make sure it gets done. My processes involve: calendar, task list, daily plan, and periodic review.

Finally, things do, indeed, get done. For me that usually means papers written, reports produced, emails sent, appointments made, and papers filed. These are my outputs.

For another example of a system, see the video below by the College Info Geek, Thomas Frank:

How do you decide?

How do you decide what work needs to get done? In other words, when do you add something to your calendar, task list, or daily plan?

Everyone has criteria for what they turn down and what they agree to do, even if those criteria are vague and change frequently. Sometimes the entire criteria is: Did my boss/professor/mom/boyfriend as me to? If so, then I’ll do it. Sometimes, that’s okay, but sometimes we also need the power of “No.”

If you’re not sure, here is one way to decide whether to add something to your plate:


There are a few simple rules for this matrix:

  1. If urgent and important, then do it right now. Don’t delay or let not urgent work interfere.
  2. If urgent and not important, delegate it to someone else. I delegate transcription work to my student assistant and dinner to Trader Joe’s freezer section because I don’t personally like either data entry or cooking, but both must be done.
  3. If neither urgent nor important, don’t do it. Period. This may require learning to politely say “No, thank you. I have other priorities.” (You’re under no obligation to elaborate on those priorities to people other than your boss.)
  4. If it is important, but not urgent, then schedule it for another time. Don’t assume you’ll remember it, actually write down the specific task and when you’ll do it. This is where your system comes in.

When do you plan?

If you’re like me, you’ll find that most items fall into the ‘Defer’ category. They must be done, but not right now. Therefore, you need to plan when they’ll get done.

Rule #1 of planning: it doesn’t happen by accident. You have to plan to plan. For me planning is part of my daily, weekly, and semester routine. Here’s how it works:

  • Daily: The first thing I do when I arrive in my office each morning is check my daily calendar and my task list. Then I write out my daily plan on a yellow legal pad that sits facing me on a shelf next to my desk (Thomas Frank likes a white board for this). This may seem redundant, but it helps me deliberately focus on what I’m going to accomplish. If an item on my task list doesn’t make it into my daily plan, it gets immediately rescheduled. For example:
    • 9:30 am – Planning & Email
    • 10:00 am – Prep for meeting w/AB
    • 10:30 am – Meeting w/AB in Room LA415
    • 11:00 am – Complete Grant Inquiry for 123 Foundation
    • Noon – Lunch
    • etc.
  • Weekly: I preview my calendar, task lists, and email flags twice a week. On Saturday mornings, I scan for school-related work. On Monday morning, I spend a little extra time scanning for work-related work. This includes flipping through my meeting book, a simple spiral-bound notebook that goes everywhere I do. New tasks get a box next to them and new calendar appointments get underlined. I add a check mark once they get into my electronic systems. An email I need to do something about gets flagged, then checked off. If it’s not checked , I missed it, so it’s not scheduled, so it won’t get done. Very little gets lost for more than a week.
  • Semester: Since I’m on an academic schedule, I also spend a few extra hours at the beginning of each semester planning major projects, including homework. I schedule all assignments (including reading) into my task list for when I’ll do the work (not when the assignment is due). I also plan major work projects and goals around the same time. This period often has a spring cleaning feeling to it.

You don’t have to replicate this method. Just have a method.

Rule #2 of planning: plans change. Be flexible. Notice above that if I don’t have time for a task in my daily plan, it immediately gets rescheduled. I don’t beat myself up for not accomplishing everything on my task list every day. That’s frequently impossible. No plan is perfect.

Rule #3 of planning: know when to ditch the plan. In addition to being administrative staff and adjunct faculty at my institution, I’m also the campus chaplain. That means that if a student walks into my office having a panic attack then that’s what we’re doing now (and probably for the next hour or two). That Board of Trustees report can wait. That’s the deal I’ve made with myself and my institution.

In situations like these, it helps to have done a little thinking about your work principles. What actually is important? What is the order of importance? What is truly urgent? And what could actually wait? We often confuse importance and urgent. The first relates to overall impact, while the second is a factor of time. Clarifying the two in your mind for your specific situation can help you make quick decisions on the fly.

Eventually, your system will become habitual. You won’t have to think about it. The moment you agree to do a thing during a meeting, that thing will make it onto your task list with a scheduled work date and you won’t even notice you’ve done it. That’s the beauty of systems, they automate a lot of process to reduce the energy necessary for them. There are some downsides, so most systems frequent updating. For myself, I know that I’m at least twice as productive than I used to be as a result of my system. And I’m not done updating yet.

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