The 3 Legs of the Productivity Stool

Stool. The three legs of the productivity stool.

Regardless of vocation, maximizing productivity is a worthwhile endeavor. Unfortunately, many of us aren’t quite sure how to get thing done. While each of us functions differently, everyone benefits by having a system for each of the three legs of the productivity stool:

3 Legs of Productivity Stool

It is important to acknowledge that these are three distinct entities, that you need all three, and that the three need to work together. Let’s look briefly at each one.

TIME

Everyone needs a calendar, and preferably one calendar where all appointments, meetings, classes, conference calls, practices, rehearsals, etc. are recorded. Your calendar is where you keep track of anything you need to “show up” for, whether in person or remotely.

An effective calendar can be either electronic or paper. This is a matter of personal preference, as both options have strengths and drawbacks. The key is to select a method you trust, will faithfully use, and will have with you at all times. In addition to recording the name and time of your commitments, maximize your calendar’s functionality by noting helpful details, such as meeting location, party address, or conference call number.

TASKS

It is critical to have a method for keeping track of what needs to be done. “I will just remember” or “I will leave this out so I don’t forget” are systems designed for failure. Forgetting is part of the human condition, and items left out often get piled upon. Random scraps of paper aren’t much better, as they are easy to lose and lack consistency.

An effective “to do” system allows you to track:

  • Your “master list” of large projects or long-term tasks (e.g. clear out the attic)
  • Today’s prioritized list of tasks, scheduled into blocks of time on your calendar (e.g. call insurance company, write term paper, research suppliers)
  • Future tasks that must be completed on specific dates in the future (e.g. follow up with Sally after she gets back from vacation next Tuesday)

There are many options for capturing tasks, including a simple notebook, an online tool such as Outlook, or an app like Any.do or Todoist. As with the calendar, each approach has advantages and disadvantages, so select one that you feel comfortable with.

When using your system, be sure to:

  • List each task in a clear and concise manner (e.g. “Call Joe to reschedule 4/12 meeting to 4/14, 555-123-4567” vs. “Call Joe”)
  • Prioritize what you will do TODAY vs. A FUTURE DAY. If you need to call someone next week when they return from vacation, flip ahead and record this task on the appropriate day.
  • Mindfully schedule each day’s tasks into your day. Look at your calendar and identify when you will do each task. If you have a full day of meetings, don’t plan to work on a task that requires hours of solitary time.
  • Consider tagging items by type (e.g. “C” for call, “E” for errand, “P” for “Paperwork” etc.), and then grouping like items together to help you be more efficient.
  • Track your progress throughout the day, noting what is completed, in progress, cancelled, or needs to be moved to another day.

MATERIALS

The calendar and task help manage what you need to do when. In order to carry through, you need to have convenient access to needed supplies. These will vary widely depending on the work you do. For some it may be a computer and a phone, for others a toolbox, for others a series of files, or for others sports gear and a car.

A few key points about materials:

  • The materials are NOT the list. We don’t need to see them to remember the task because we’ve recorded the task in a “to do” system.
  • Supplies should be conveniently located in a reliable spot. This is where organizing is especially critical. Every supply you use should have a clearly designated home, so when you need it, you know exactly where to look.
  • Items you use frequently should be nearby, while those you use less often can be stored in a more remote location.

*     *     *     *     *

Just as a stool with 2 legs cannot stand, a system lacking one of these three elements will collapse. Each has a unique, but intertwined role…

=> If you have a wonderful list, but can’t find your supplies, you may run late.

=> If you have your list and tools, but didn’t take your calendar into account, you may have insufficient time.

=> If you free space in your calendar, but lack a prioritized task list, you are likely to waste valuable time.

Getting things done isn’t easy, and many feel there is more to do than can realistically be accomplished. While you can’t always lighten your load, establishing a strong productivity framework will alleviate stress and help you work as efficiently as possible.

What tools do you most rely on?

28 thoughts on “The 3 Legs of the Productivity Stool”

    1. Loving that we are on the same page. Having the systems in place takes the “thinking” out of the process, which always makes things go more quickly:) Thanks for the affirmation, Janine!

  1. I love the to do tasks options above. People don’t get specific enough from my experience.

    I recently created a customized planner daily page using large sheet stickers. It includes squares and tasks I do on a daily/weekly basis and space for me to add other tasks. I print it out the Thursday before the week on a large sheet label and cut them down to my traveling planner size. It takes me 5 minutes to do this. It works great and keeps me on track. I don’t want to make it into a book yet, because some tasks may change over time.

    Thanks for sharing.

    1. I love hearing the details of what tools people are using. This sounds similar to a system used by another colleague. Both of you incorporate the ability to schedule tasks into blocks of time. This is such a useful exercise… I find it can be very helpful to students to learn to plan their time!

    1. I use a variation of the bullet method, but I agree the whole thing is a bit complicated. The key is to commit to one system and use it faithfully. I mean, for EVERYTHING. I like having a paper book where I can flip ahead and record future tasks… it really helps me avoid forgetting something I need to do next week or next month.

  2. I recently had an important reminder of the importance of listing individual tasks and not just projects. I had an interesting opportunity, was happy to say yes, and added it to my To Do List. A few days later, I reviewed the information so I could add individual tasks and timelines to the list – that’s when I realized I’d overextended myself and that the ROI wouldn’t be worth the time and stress I’d have to invest in the project. Fortunately it was early enough that I was able to bow out gracefully!
    Janet Barclay recently posted…Custom WordPress Design: Moving OnMy Profile

    1. Glad you could get out of it, Janet! Thoughtfully considering all that is involved can be a lifesaver. I also find breaking projects into tasks can make some large/intimidating goals easier to begin. I also feel empowered as I see the boxes get checked off… this encourages me to keep going!

    1. It can be so frustrating to have 2 legs in place and then realize that the third is out of whack! The good news is that once a system is set for all three, we can focus on the work, instead of running around trying to get our act together:)

  3. The comparison to a three-legged stool is interesting. It’s very helpful! Sometimes I only have a calendar. Although I’m generally organized, I still fall short on so many things.

    1. I think this is one of those concepts that we all understand, but haven’t really acknowledged in unintentional way. But once you set up a system for all three, you really are more productive because you can just do the work and not have run around getting everything together!

    1. I love the idea of your task list being your silent partner, Jill. That is such a healthy and positive idea. I will definitely share that concept with my clients:)

  4. Such an insightful post! It’s true how much time and tasks work together, but adding the third aspect of materials makes productivity happen. Without easy access of materials, it would be a chore to get anything completed.

    1. When people share that they are struggling with productivity, I typically find that they lack a sufficient system in one of these three areas. Interestingly, they also tend to be very strong in one of these three areas! This makes sense to me, as we all have our strengths and weaknesses. But there is no way getting around the need to have a trustworthy method in place for all three.

    1. I’m glad to hear you like it, Sarah! I’m still a paper gal, but I am trying to become familiar with what people like digitally!

  5. Great post the 3 legs of productivity! I find that placing my tasks into scheduled time slots on my electronic calendar really help me to remain productive. I find many of my organizing clients have a “random scraps of paper” approach to organizing, and once we get the task list in one place, it is so much easier for them to accomplish their goals.
    Nancy Haworth recently posted…Creating a Laundry RoutineMy Profile

    1. Scheduling into blocks of time is surprisingly powerful! It is much easier to put off working on something if it hasn’t been assigned a time slot. Agree completely!

  6. I love the way you tied this together. You’re absolutely right – use any two without the third and you run into a bind. I like to sit down with my calendar on Sunday evenings and scope out the week – assigning different errands and tasks to the days ahead. It doesn’t always stick but at least I have a basic plan and can shift things around as the need arises. Also, I find that since I’ve written my tasks, appointments and errands down I don’t worry about trying to remember them!

    1. I so agree…. once I record it, I stop worrying about holding it in my head. I can’t function without my schedule. I call it my “mini brain”:)

  7. Pingback: Make a Fresh Start – Day 10 | The Seana Method Organizing & Productivity

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