How to Design a Productivity System that Works for You

Feeling overwhelmed with all there is to do in your creative business? Every day, you're feeding the social media beast, solving technical problems on your website, keeping customers happy, not to mention actually providing your services or crafting your products.

And then there's your personal life. ("What personal life?" you ask.)

Aaaaargh! It's all too much.

Hello and welcome to the Oh, Yes! Productivity System series!

We’ll begin with Step 1 – How to Design a Productivity System that Works for You.

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Feeling overwhelmed by all there is to do in your creative business? Check out this article on how to design your unique productivity system.

My goals in this series are to help you:

  • invent a way of capturing every project, task, and idea that ever leaps into your brain
  • group these ideas into smart categories
  • make sure every task or subtask is actionable
  • organize and prioritize the tasks, for minimum overwhelm and maximum productivity, and
  • put everything into a task/project management system you love working with

Perhaps more important, I want you to discover how to check in with your unique system every day, so that the tasks actually get done. Big promises, I know!

In other words, we’ll be creating a project and task management system exactly designed to fit your unique business, personality and lifestyle.

Good news! Once you’ve invested the time and effort into discovering and tweaking your perfect system for getting your business tasks well-organized, you’ll be able to carry those skills and habits into the rest of your personal and family life.

You’re going to find that you get better and better at running all the projects you manage, at work and at home.

So let’s get started!

About You

Now I’m willing to bet you’re already a highly organized person. We all have to be these days, just to navigate the complexities of life in the 21st century.

But maybe some days, you feel so overwhelmed that you feel your life is held together by spit and baling wire.* An unreasonable client, a tech failure, or a sick child at home – on top of all you already juggle – can put your stress levels over the top.

UNLESS you upgrade your juggling skills.

* Sidebar for Language Nerds: Baling wire was wire used by farmers to hold together bales of hay. And spit ... well, you know what spit is.

Presumably, the spit was to hold onto the stray bits and pieces of hay that would otherwise escape.  So, the phrase "held together with spit and baling wire" implies an on-the-fly, makeshift repair.

In some communities, the phrase is "chewing gum and baling wire." I'd imagine that chewing gum would do the job even better than spit.

Chances are, you already use some sort of To Do list or Task Management software. Take a moment to ask yourself how well it’s working for you.

Maybe you had high hopes for that sleek new app or pretty, pink planner when you first discovered it, but now it’s just one more abandoned productivity dream.

There could be any number of reasons for this:

  • It might be a great tool for you, but you simply need to rethink how you categorize tasks in the system and how you set reminders. (A few simple tweaks might make all the difference.)
  • You might not be checking in with your app/planner daily. You’ve turned it into a storage container that’s been pushed under the bed, gathering dust. (What's needed here is a mindset shift.)
  • You believe "I'm just no good at organizing," when the truth is that you are trying to schedule more tasks and events than you can reasonably do in a day or week or month
  • That app or planner may be completely unsuited to the way your brain processes information. (By looking at other options, you might find a tool that fits you like a glove.)

So if you’d like to get a taste of some of the “best” alternatives in productivity tools, stay with me in this series as we take a whirlwind tour of four mobile-friendly, fun-to-use software systems plus one on-the-wall physical system.

Is There a Perfect Productivity Tool for You?

Of course, there are zillions of productivity apps out there. (Alternative fact.) So my claim that these choices are “the best” is purely subjective, but I can tell you that I’ve spent ridiculous amounts of time testing dozens of solutions, so that I can give you some terrific options for handling your growing mountain of To-Do's. Here they are:

  • Free Traditional To Do List Software: Wunderlist
  • Free Mind Mapping Software: XMind
  • Free Kanban Software: MeisterTask
  • Physical System: Kanban on a Corkboard, Whiteboard, or Magnetic Board
  • Free multi-featured, task-tracking and project management system (great for teams): Asana

Naturally, all the apps have paid versions – hey, those app developers have to eat, too! – but the free versions are all robust and powerful.

Left-Brain or Right?

One thing I’ve come to realize is that almost all task management solutions are designed by left-brain thinkers, and appeal most to a logical, left-brain work style, which might not work well for creative entrepreneurs like us.

Artsy, right-brain thinkers are often drawn to mind mapping software like XMind, or perhaps a colorful, doodle-filled whiteboard, or a Kanban system. But those options have some downsides too.

Do you think of yourself as more left-brain or right? I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m half and half. I’m absolutely a color-loving, eccentric, you-can’t-tell-ME-what-to-do creative. But I also LOVE to create lists and workflows and systems. And that's ultra left-brain behavior. However, I digress…

For me, there are two things that go a long way to making task management more enjoyable:

  1. The ability to filter my task lists (so I’m only looking at what’s doable in this moment), and
  2. The ability to play with color to categorize my tasks and projects

At the end of this series, I'll show you the hybrid system I've devised for myself, which works better than anything I've ever used before.

But it goes without saying that your system must fit YOU (and, ideally, anyone else who’ll be collaborating with you).

Action Time: Questions to Ask Yourself Right Now

Take 10 or 15 minutes now to jot down some ideas about what you like (and don’t like) about your current system. For instance:

  • Is it ugly, and you NEED pretty?
  • Is it too simple? Too complicated?
  • Do you need to assign tasks to an assistant or family member?
  • Would you like to communicate with them inside the app rather than email?
  • What about organizing client work and files and messages within the software?
  • Do you want to use your smartphone to add new tasks or check them off?
  • Do you want to be able to manage most of your tasks from your desktop or laptop
  • What about access to the app via the web when you're traveling or commuting?
  • Is your business a side hustle, while you work a full-time job? (Ouch! I feel for you.)
  • If yes, do you want to keep all your tasks in the same app, or separate?
  • Perhaps the grandest – and most valuable – question to ask yourself is: What problems am I hoping to solve with a new task management system?

Setting up one system to handle all your requirements – and to train your assistants or clients in how to use the system – will take some upfront time, but the payoffs can be amazing.

Keep these notes handy. You'll want them when you're assessing possible new solutions.

One more consideration: If you have a job as well as your business, and the company specifies a particular task management software for work use, it may be simplest for you to keep all your own business and personal tasks in that same app. That way, you won’t have to keep switching back and forth. And you won’t have to learn anything new.

Just trust your intuition, to see what feels right for you.

“Anxiety is caused by a lack of control, organization, preparation, and action.”

—David Kekich, authority on longevity science

So here’s the big picture of how we’ll proceed in this series.

  1. Answer the Action Time questions above, and make some notes. They'll help you assess each of the productivity tools we look at in the rest of the series. (And any other of the hundreds of productivity apps available. Gasp.)
  2. Read the posts in this series that interest you. Then, evaluate the choices, including whatever system you’re already using. 
  3. Choose the best system for you … and commit to using only this trusted system for every task and project in your business and personal life.
  4. As soon as you think of a new task, immediately get that task out of your head and into your trusted system. In other words, if you’re using an app, every task must go into that app. No more handwritten lists shoved into your purse, or sticky notes cluttering your desktop! (Whoops! Just let me take care of something before I show you my own desktop....)
  5. Work the system! You MUST check in with your system at least once a day, and choose your priorities for that day and week.

Now, before we go out and find (or invent) the ideal system for you, we need to clear the decks. 

In the next post, we'll focus on getting everything out of your head and into "buckets" of tasks that make sense to you.

P.S. If you need help organizing a big move, have a look at my eBook and video course, Moving for Busy Women

Here's What's Next in the Productivity Series

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  • Mind-Map Your Way to Productivity with XMind
  • MeisterTask: A Beautiful Way to Kanban Your Task List
  • Could a Cork Board or Whiteboard be Your Best Task Manager?
  • Asana: A Powerful Task and Project Manager for Creative Entrepreneurs