March 23, 2013

Asking the Most Important Productivity Question


If you’re like me, you’ve read and studied a gazillion different personal and professional productivity approaches offered by countless experts, or supposed experts, in the field. And if you’re also like me, most of them don’t work. Or at least they don’t work exactly as described. Why? Because everyone is unique and therefore everyone’s approach to productivity must necessarily also be unique. So template solutions tend to not work for most people.

Over the years I’ve honed down my personal productivity guidelines to the bare bones because that’s the only way I actually follow them. The most important of these is to ask myself a simple question throughout each day of my life. That question is “what should I be doing right now.”

On its face that reads like a no brainer. I can imagine in many reader’s heads right now they’re saying to themselves “well of course we should be asking ourselves that question.” But I don’t think most people do, at least not often enough.

It’s so easy to get caught up in habit, easy distractions, time killing procrastination devices, and so on. But if we just consciously (that’s the trick) periodically throughout our day ask ourselves the question of what we should be doing in that moment, and honestly react to the answer that comes to mind and trust it, then we’re way ahead of most people who float through their typical day without giving any conscious thought to how they’re filling their hours.

When we ask ourselves this question, and try to the best of our ability to trust the answer that comes to mind and act on it, we tend to avoid most of the time killing and less than fulfilling activities in our lives.

However, I also view productivity differently than many. It is not always about producing in the classic sense. Sometimes the answer to the question might be “I should take a nap” or “I need a chill out day” or “I really need to call my friend who I haven’t talked with in a while.” For me, to be productive means that the hours of my day are spent doing things that are personally fulfilling, make me happy, and hopefully amid it all produce some tangibles or intangibles that improve the lives of others.

When asking this question of yourself, I find it helpful if I keep a few keywords in my head as I do it. The keywords prompt me to quickly review the various areas of my life and keep the full breadth of my life’s needs, wants and commitments under consideration as I ask the question. Over time I’ve learned to do this all in a matter of moments. The keywords I use are Body, Mind, Service, People and Stuff.

Body prompts me to think about my diet, fitness, stress, sleep, grooming, medical, clothing and other body-related needs. Mind encompasses learning and ongoing personal development to ensure I keep those needs always in mind. Service is serving others through my professional (work) and nonprofit/community work as well as simply serving my fellow man, be they friends or strangers, to make their lives better. People encourages me to stay connected to friends and those close to me. Stuff makes me think about anything having to do with the physical stuff in my life or the various intangible stuff like finances, calendars and information storage. Taken together, the five keywords seem to encompass anything that might be worthy of me keeping at the forefront of my daily asking of the question.

If you have any personal productivity tips that work for you, please share them here. While it’s true that we’re all unique and must tailor such tips to our own way of thinking and acting, reading about other people’s approaches does give us information that often makes us further improve our own approaches.