Productivity Systems are just containers with rules

Here’s an idea I think is worth playing with.

What if we looked at the myriad of productivity systems as nothing more than the basic thing they are; a container of work with rules on how to get that work done?

By breaking it down to the basics we can ask critical questions about the system and disband the idea that one size fits all. Ever been on Instagram or Pinterest and see people waxing on about how their system is the best and the only one to use?

I think that’s worth exploring in more detail.

I’ve been thinking too much about this recently, but thought I’d share some thoughts here.

What is a container?

A container is literally as it sounds, it’s a container that contains all of the stuff we’d like to get done as a busy Parent.

  • When we see a simple To Do or Task list, it is a container with work in it.
  • When we see a Getting Things Done system, it is a container with work in it.
  • When we see a Bullet Journal, it is a notebook (container) with work in it.
  • When we see a Kanban board it is a container with the current work on it, maybe showing the states and process that the work goes through.
  • When we see a Gantt chart at work, it is a container with the current work in it.
  • When we see calendar management, it is a calendar with someone’s work schedule in it

It’s important to note that the actual work itself is not in the container – it’s the labels, identification, model, description of the work. The real work has yet to be done 🙂

Container photo by frank mckenna on Unsplash

What are Rules?

The rules that we apply to the container explain how the work moves and is processed. It’s how we get things done and deliver to the world what it is we’re trying to do. Whether that be new school uniforms for the kids, bills that need paying, admin we need to do, a new book we’re writing or anything we’re trying to ship.

Many of the rules of your system may actually not be visible to anyone but yourself. Your rules, that you’ve made up to help you get things done.

Some of these rules are inherent in the system we’ve chosen to use – for example, Bullet Journaling has a set of rules to get the most from the system.

  • A Kanban board has rules on how work is processed.
    • Maybe there are some limits on each column about how much work can be in that state at any given time (Limited WIP).
    • There are swim lanes and columns that show the order that our work goes through.
    • It’s likely to show who is working on what, estimates of time and sub tasks.
      • A family Kanban Board is a wonderful thing.
  • When we see a Gantt chart at work, there are rules on how work is processed.
    • There’s likely a critical path that has been defined and will be actioned first.
    • There are dates and owners of the work and the expectation is that completion is tracked and communicated.
    • It will show dependencies and handovers.
    • It will show who does what after the current tasks are completed.
  • When we see great calendar management, there are rules on how work is processed.
    • You add work to your calendar which inherently shows when you are going to perform tasks, meetings and activities.
    • An obvious rule is that it’s not possible to be in two places at once, or doing two pieces of work.
    • If something comes up unexpectedly then something else will move.
    • Our family commitments will be in there, like appointments and football training etc
    • We may use colour coding to quickly see what sort of commitments we have to do.
    • And no doubt you have your own personal rules about how to process work – like batching or something like that.
  • When we see a simple To Do or Task list, there are rules on how work is processed.
    • Some people work through the list from top to bottom.
    • Some people work on what is important first.
    • Some people work on what is interesting to them.
    • Some people use digital tools to house their list, or index cards.
    • People define their own specific rules for how to action work on their task list – rules that make sense to them and their work.
  • When we see a Getting Things Done system, there are rules on how work is processed.
  • When we see a Bullet Journal, it’s a notebook (container) with work in it.
    • There are rules on how work moves, how we add work to the calendar, how we plan out our days.
    • Some of these rules are from the creator, some from people hacking the Bullet Journal to make it work for them.

Arrow Photo by Hello I’m Nik 🎞 on Unsplash

As you can see we often need these rules to get things done. By having rules we are able to understand how work is processed and ensure we follow the rules for maximum productivity.

The goal of the system and questions to ask

The goal of every productivity system is to get things delivered, to add value to our own lives, or our family, or our audience.

In a nutshell the sub goals are essentially to:

  • Understand the work and the value it adds
  • Prioritise the work that adds the most value
  • Understand when the work is done so we can move on to the next piece

Every system of productivity is essentially trying to achieve the same thing. As such we can then look at the purpose of the system and ask some important questions.

Is all of the work in the container?

An obvious starting point is to ask is; is all of your work is in the system. If not, why not?

There is little point in having a productivity system if it only contains some of the work.

How can we assess the value and priority of that work, if we can’t see it? How do we know it’s done, if we can’t see it?

So, the value of a productivity system is in the fact that all work is visible and we can see the status of it. We can compare work and understand the priority. We can stop doing something and pick something else up.

Making work visible is an important part of getting stuff done.

Getting it out of our heads frees up space and it means we can trade work off against other work. Do this? Or that? Or something else?

Do the rules help us achieve the purpose?

Given that the purpose of a productivity system is to ship stuff, it makes sense to have rules that help us do that.

The best systems are the ones that help us achieve our purpose.

Photo by Brandable Box on Unsplash

Can we change the rules?

We shouldn’t be afraid to change something that isn’t working.

If the rules you’ve implemented don’t work – change them. Give them time to bed in, test them, study them, measure them and see if they are helping you achieve your purpose.

If they are – move quickly. If they aren’t – what needs to be done?

Image of car lights flashing by – by Rob Lambert

Follow the rules

Once we’ve got all of our work into the Container and we have some Rules that make sense – then follow the rules.

Trust the rules.

Move fast and follow process.

When we can see all of the work, and make priority calls about the work, and have everything in our container, and have rules that help us deliver values – then we should be able to move fast.

We can trust the Productivity System – and let our minds and energy focus on doing the work.

If the rules don’t work then change them, but once they do – the only sensible course of action is to follow the rules.

Once you’ve spent the time finding the Containers and Rules that work for you – follow process.