12 Favorite Productivity Principles

I am a pastor and have a variety of tasks to fulfill each week – study, prayer, counseling, visitation, teaching, administration, etc. I also enjoy reading about productivity and learning how best to use my time for both professional and personal pursuits. I’ve learned a lot of tips and tricks along the way and have compiled my twelve favorite productivity principles below. I trust you will find them helpful in your life as well.

(Note: This is a new series, and I will be adding each new tip to this page as they are posted on the blog.)
 
12 Favorite Productivity Principles

1. 20/20/MIT – First things first
2. Morning, afternoon, evening rule – Finding your rhythm
3. Habit stacking – Habits are hard, but routines are routine
4. Ideal weekly schedule – A place for everything, and everything in its place
5. Appointments, tasks and information – Using the right tool for the job
6. Task processing – One thing at a time (micro-tasking)
7. Working with resistance – Resistance is not futile
8. 10-3-2-1-0 rule – Countdown to a good night’s sleep
9. Capture notebook and pen – One book to rule them all
10. “Briefcase” principle – Avoiding the last-minute rush
11. “Default” principle – Choosing enjoyment over easy
12. “Do it first” principle – Tell what you’ve done, not what you will do
00. Miscellaneous – Your mileage may vary
 
1. 20/20/MIT – First things first

The most important productivity principle for me is, appropriately enough, to do the most important things first. This is often called the “big rocks” principle, named after Steven Covey’s famous illustration of putting the big rocks in the jar before adding the smaller pebbles and sand.

I like to break this down into two areas. What are the most important things for me to do every day? And what are the most important things I specifically need to do today?

The two most important things for me to do every day are to read my Bible and pray. To make sure I do this every day, I do what I call my 20/20 – twenty minutes of prayer followed by twenty minutes of Bible reading.

For prayer I take a twenty-minute prayer walk first thing in the morning. I talk to God about my upcoming day, confessing any wrongs I have done, thanking him for the good things in my life, praying for my family and loved ones.

Then I come home, make a nice hot, cup of tea, sit in my favorite chair and spend twenty minutes reading from the Bible. I use a Bible-reading schedule that helps me read through the Bible each year. This is a peaceful time each morning as I read and reflect.

Now there are other things that are important for me to do every day as well – exercise, grooming, spending time with family, etc. I have a system to make sure I do all those as well. But these are the two most important things for me, so I make them a part of my morning routine and do them first every day.

Then I spend just a few minutes writing down my MITs – my most important tasks for today. I write down between 3-5 tasks that are the most important things for me to do today. I keep that list with me throughout the day and make sure I work on those things first rather than put them off until later.

The 20/20/MIT is essential for me to make sure I do the most important things every day. I encourage you to think through what the most important things are for you and to use some form of the 20/20/MIT to build these things into your daily life.

 
2. Morning, afternoon, evening rule – Finding your rhythm

A second productivity principle I find helpful is the morning, afternoon, evening rule. The idea is that different parts of the day are better suited for different tasks. I’ve found that the following arrangement works best for me:

  • Mornings for creative work (writing; thinking; creating)
  • Afternoons for action work (tasks; chores; administration)
  • Evenings for reflective work (walking; reading; unwinding)

Thinking about my day in these larger categories gives a rhythm to the day and helps me as I plan out my regular weekly schedule as well as my specific tasks for each day. By doing the types of tasks that are best suited for the various parts of the day, I gain momentum and find that I am more productive throughout the day.

 
3. Habit stacking – Habits are hard, but routines are routine

I learned this third productivity principle from S.J. Scott’s excellent book, Habit Stacking: 127 Small Changes to Improve Your Health, Wealth, and Happiness. The idea behind this principle is that there are many small habits that would improve our lives if we did them every day, but we often don’t do them because they are so small and easy to forget. Some we learned as children and do automatically, such as brushing your teeth, but there are others we would like to do but we leave undone day after day. Habit stacking helps you incorporate these small habits into your daily life by organizing them into routines.

For example, two habits I always had difficulty establishing were taking vitamins and drinking water. Both are small enough tasks and easy to do, and yet I would continually forget to do them. Now they are part of my morning routine. The first thing I do when I get up is drink a glass of water, take two vitamins, and then drink two more glasses of water. Then I’m off for my morning walk. As habits they were hard to develop. But now that they are part of my morning routine, they are automatic.

Two other habit stacks I have incorporated into my day are: 1) tea and stretches routine – doing five minutes of stretching and planks in the morning while I wait for my tea to brew; 2) ready for work routine – when I get to work, I fill my water cup, quickly clean/organize my desk, review my MITs for the day and pray. There are many others, of course, but that should give you the idea.

Habits are hard, but routines are routine. There are many small habits that would improve your life if you did them every day. If you try to do them individually, you will inevitably fail. But when you stack your habits into routines and tie them to specific parts of your day, they become automatic. Give it a try!

 
4. Ideal weekly schedule – A place for everything, and everything in its place

Take some time to think of all the things you need or want to do on a weekly basis. What would the ideal week look like for you? Now, using what you learned from the first three principles (1-first things first; 2-the morning, afternoon, evening rule; and 3-habit stacking), design your ideal weekly schedule. Put everything on it, including time for family, leisure, rest and sleep. Some people like to map out 30-minute blocks, but I just use broader one-hour blocks.

Designing an ideal weekly schedule gives you several immediate benefits.

  1. It helps you face reality. If it doesn’t all fit in the calendar, you are trying to do too much.
     
  2. It helps you prioritize. Once you see what you can realistically do, you can choose the most important things.
     
  3. It helps you know what to do next. Once you have determined the best times to do your various tasks, you will know what you should be doing at any given time.
     
  4. It helps you set aside large blocks of time. This is essential for regular, deep, focused, uninterrupted work.
     
  5. It helps you be flexible. The ideal weekly schedule is simply that – an ideal. It doesn’t mean that it will work out that way every week. Life happens. We face all sorts of interruptions and unforeseen circumstances. The ideal weekly schedule allows you to be flexible, because you use it more as a guide rather than as a strict rule.
     
  6. It helps you get back on track. When you do get interrupted, you know what you missed, so you can reschedule or get back on track.
     

I have a basic, ideal weekly schedule that I tweak or redesign from time to time depending on new goals or life circumstances. Here is an example of my current ideal weekly schedule. Once again, I use this more as a guide rather than a strict rule.

ideal-weekly-schedule

(Note: Click to enlarge)

 
5. Appointments, tasks and information – Using the right tool for the job

Most of us use a calendar and some type of to-do list to help us keep on track. But we don’t always use them in the most effective way. We put tasks on our calendars and spread our to-do lists over several different mediums (sticky notes on the desk, miscellaneous sheets of paper, even our email inbox!). And then where do we put all the information that we need to store (things like future vacation spots, registration numbers, AC filter sizes, etc.)?

The key is to use the right tool for the job. You wouldn’t try to cut down a tree with a hammer, and you wouldn’t hammer a nail with a saw.

Here’s the general principle: 1) Use your calendar for appointments and reminders; 2) Use a task management tool for projects and tasks; and 3) Use an information tool to store and access information. Keep these tools separate and do not overlap. Don’t put tasks on your calendar, and don’t store information in your to-do list.

I like to use electronic tools that sync across all my devices. I use Google Calendar for appointments and reminders. I use Todoist for projects and tasks. And I use Evernote for storing and accessing information.

You may prefer a paper calendar or day planner or a different set of tools, but either way I suggest you choose three different tools to deal with these three very different types of information. Use the right tool for the job!

Note: The best resource I’ve found on how to use these different tools and integrate them together is the book, Do More Better, by Tim Challies. Tim has done a great job showing how to set up these tools so that they integrate with each other and with the various roles and responsibilities in your life.

 
6. Task processing – One thing at a time (micro-tasking)

It’s one thing to put all your tasks in one place. It’s another to know how to process those tasks effectively. Your to-do list tells you what you need to do, but it doesn’t tell you how to do it. How do you know what needs to be done first? How do you know the right order to do your tasks? How do you know what you should be working on right now?

Some of the principles we’ve already looked at will help you here. If you wrote down your MITs from principle #1, then you already know the 3-5 most important things to work on for the day. If you follow the morning, afternoon evening rule from principle #2, then you will have allocated your various tasks accordingly. And if you have put together your ideal weekly calendar from principle #4, then you already know the ideal time for you to work on your various tasks and projects.

These principles will all help you in processing your tasks, but the most important part of task processing is to do one thing at a time. This means no multi-tasking. There’s an old Russian proverb: “If you chase two rabbits, you will catch neither one.” You may think you are getting more done when you multi-task, but multi-tasking dilutes your focus, and focus is essential to working effectively.

So instead of multi-tasking, try micro-tasking. Micro-tasking follows two simple rules: 1) Work on one thing at a time; 2) You don’t need to finish the task you are working on. You just need to work on it. Micro-tasking helps you focus on one thing at a time, and it also helps you overcome resistance because you only need to work on the task, not necessarily finish it. Of course, once you get going on any task, you build up momentum which may help you to complete the task anyways.

I have used a variety of systems over the years to process my tasks for the day. My favorite systems are from Mark Forster which all work well in helping you to focus on one task at a time while overcoming resistance. For the past several years I have been using a form of Mark’s “No List” system to process my tasks. The key here is to write down each task before you do it. Don’t do anything without first writing it down. Writing it down helps you to focus on the task at hand. It also helps you overcome your resistance to getting started on the task (see principle #7).

I store all my tasks in Todoist (see principle #5), but I use a notebook and pen to process my tasks. Here’s how my process works in detail:

I open my notebook and write today’s date at the top of the page. I open Todoist to see my active tasks for the day. In the right-hand column of the notebook I write down my 3-5 MITs for the day. I pick one and write it down in the left-hand column.

Before working on it I ask, “Is there anything else I want to do first?” If so, I write the second task on the next line. If not, I put a dot to the left of the first task and start working on it. If I’ve added a second task, before working on it I ask, “Is there anything else I want to do first?” If so, I write the new task on the next line. If not, I put a dot to the left of the second task and start working on it.

I keep asking the question and adding tasks until I arrive at the task that I feel I should be doing right now. I rarely add more than 3-4 tasks before I start working on one, and often just start working on the first task. The dot next to the task I’m working on singles it out as my one active task so that I am not distracted by the other tasks.

I work on the task until it is finished, or until I feel I have done enough work on it for now, or until I need to move on to the next task. When I stop working on the task, I put a checkmark over the dot to signify I have stopped working on it. If I have completed the task, I also cross it out of the right margin and check it off in Todoist. If not, I just leave it in the right margin and Todoist as a reminder to come back to it later.

I then go back to asking and entering tasks in the left margin. Before starting work on any item, I ask, “Is there anything else I want to do first?” If so, I write the new task on the next line and ask the same question. If not, I put a dot to the left of the task and start working on it.

The whole process is very simple, and it usually takes less than a minute to decide on the next task and start working on it. I also like the fact that I have a complete list at the end of the day of all that I have worked on, as well as any tasks that I did not complete. I could just use a random piece of paper each day but using a notebook gives me a running journal of all my tasks for the past week, month, year, etc.

The next day I start fresh and work the whole process over again. Try it! I think you will find it a very pleasant and effective way to process your tasks for the day.

 
7. Working with resistance – Resistance is not futile

Resistance is the feeling of dread or discomfort we experience when approaching a task. Resistance is the main reason we procrastinate and struggle to get going on important tasks. Resistance is the reason we end up wasting time or doing something else to avoid doing the tasks we need to do.

Resistance is your number one enemy when it comes to getting your tasks done. But once you understand resistance, you can turn it around and make it work for you rather than against you. Here are three things you need to understand about resistance:

  1. Resistance is a clue as to what you should be doing next. You won’t feel resistance about tasks that you don’t need to be doing.
     
  2. Resistance only gets stronger when you put off a task. The longer you avoid starting, the stronger the resistance grows.
     
  3. Resistance is strongest just before starting the task. Once you actually get started on the task, you build momentum and resistance fades away.
     

Once you understand these three things about resistance, you can make resistance work for you rather than against you.

  1. When you feel resistance towards a task or project, recognize that this is a clue to what you should be doing next. Immediately write it down on your task processing list and start working on it. (Note: Do not just put it on your overall to do list. It’s probably already been sitting there for some time. Be sure you write it on your task processing list of things you are about to do – see principle #6.)
     
  2. Realize that no matter how uncomfortable the resistance feels right now, it is only going to get worse the longer you put off the task. In other words, the resistance you feel right now is the least resistance you are going to feel towards the project or task. It is only going to get worse, so write the task down and start working on it now.
     
  3. Realize that once you get going on the project, the resistance will fade away. Resistance is uncomfortable, and the best way to get rid of the discomfort is to start working on the task.
     

This is where micro-tasking and writing down your tasks before you do them will also help you (see principle #6). Remember, writing it down on your task list just means you will get started on the task. It doesn’t mean you have to complete it. It only means you will get started and do some work on it. Maybe five minutes, maybe ten, maybe longer. But the simple act of writing it down and marking it as your one active task will help you get started, and once you get started, that feeling of discomfort and dread will fade away.

Resistance is your number one enemy to productivity. But it doesn’t have to be. Resistance can be your friend. Resistance is not futile when you learn to work with resistance instead of allowing resistance to work against you.

Note: If you’re interested in learning more about resistance and how it works, the best book I’ve read on the subject is Mark Forster’s Get Everything Done. Mark understands resistance better than anyone I know, and his whole book is a goldmine of great productivity tips.

 
8. 10-3-2-1-0 rule – Countdown to a good night’s sleep

 
9. Capture notebook and pen – One book to rule them all

 
10. “Briefcase” principle – Avoiding the last-minute rush

 
11. “Default” principle – Choosing enjoyment over easy

 
12. “Do it first” principle – Tell what you’ve done, not what you will do

 
Miscellaneous – Your mileage may vary