The Worst Possible Way to Work (or) How to Find a System That Works for You


I was listening to a BBC program the other day that was talking about whether grandparents raising their grandkids was a good thing or a bad thing. Some people called in to say, yes, it was good but also bad. Other people called in to say it was bad, but also good. In the end, it seemed like the show’s host, whether on directive or personally motivated, was looking for “the truth,” in the sense that she wanted an answer – the answer. This is the format of most discourse in modern-day media, it seems, because it simplifies the issue down to the proverbial black and white. Instead of looking for some perspective on things, the conversation, apparently, always needs to come to a conclusion.

Self Help by hagner_james on flickr
Self Help by hagner_james on flickr

I see this mentality a lot when I read the prolific “self-help” & “personal-growth” genre of blogs. There are “keys to success,” “paths to financial freedom” and, my favorite, “rock-solid ways to improve productivity.” If you’re familiar with blogs, then you’ll know the format of a catchy title, a hooky intro, and subsequent headers that are action-packed and full of information (cough). Knowing this, it’s hard to be TOO critical of the content because, hey, people are reading it and subscribing to it and linking to it and people are getting paid and everything is great. Still, there is something a bit funny about someone who discovered their path to productivity on their own but then shares it as the gospel of getting things done.

So, I’m going to share with you how I work. This method would/will drive certain people nuts. This method is not foolproof but none of them are. It also doesn’t work for absolutely everything, but none of the other ones do either. I read a lot of the productivity posts out there, internalize the message, and typically end up rejecting a lot of it. My system is probably a hybrid of all the things I’ve read about “making work happen.” Still, I modified it to be my own and, while I’m always changing and improving, it’s working well for me (ask the friends and family I don’t talk to enough).

I’m new to all of this… how can this help?

It’s so easy to get caught up on the “self-help” cycle of reading other people’s insights constantly and going nowhere in your own life. It’s also easy to get down on yourself if you just CAN’T meditate for an hour in the morning with a warm cup of white tea and visualize your day coming together. Some people work one way, some work another, and many don’t work at all. I want to tell you what I do to manage the chaos, live in the chaos, and use the chaos to my advantage. Maybe you’ll learn something, maybe you won’t but hopefully, by the end of this, you’ll at least feel OK about having your OWN system (or no system).

1. I work on what I want to work on

I’m simply incapable of being motivated and productive when I work on projects that don’t have my full interest. I’m still trying to figure out if this is just a human thing or a particular limitation of mine. Regardless if the origin is DNA- or species-related, it is something that affects my professional life profoundly.

Part of having a job of any kind is taking the good with the bad. This is, thankfully, true for rockstars, artists, programmers, teachers, and everyone else. We all have those moments, some more than others. So what to do when you get tired of something?

Move right along. Do the next thing. Stop what you’re doing before you ruin it.

If I can’t write, I don’t write and I try something different like web coding or maybe a bit of design or just run-of-the-mill organization. If I’m not feeling mentally capable, I do something repetitive. If I’m feeling competent and smart, I try to tackle something high level. Unless it’s due, people are waiting, or something’s on fire, if I don’t want to contribute, I don’t.

2. I jump from project to project, sometimes mid-sentence

This might be the most destructive of my tendencies but so far so good.

Unfinished and forgotten by Zach_ManchesterUK on flickr
Unfinished and forgotten by Zach_ManchesterUK on flickr

I’ve been writing an email to someone, lost the motivation to type and switched to something else immediately. I wasn’t interrupted, the connection wasn’t broken, I didn’t change my mind, I just decided not to continue emailing. I often save drafts with unfinished sentences, let alone paragraphs.

Sometimes your inspiration to complete a certain task only lasts so long. Maybe the first couple paragraphs are gold and the rest are, say, crap. Instead of just pushing through for the sake of doing so, I stop and move on to come back when the motivation re-arises.

Now, there are times when it pays to sit down, drill in, and concentrate on what you’re doing. There are many things that require a strong train of thought and benefit from moving from idea to idea within a framework. There are more things, however, that simply don’t need that kind of attention. Emails in any form, documents, web pages… many things just need you to complete mental modules and then you can move on.

Never underestimate solid concentration with no interruptions for long periods of time. Don’t be afraid, however, to take microbreaks and split your project into chunks. The drip drip drip can, in many cases, lead to a better output.

3. I keep close track of (almost) everything

I’m on top of my shit, that’s all there is to it.

I stay in close contact with people and I do what I say I’m going to do. I’m frequently used by other people as their system of organization because I keep things moving and can remember where things left off. I’m not great with uber-minutia and I can’t possibly admit to always being on time, remembering anything, and making no mistakes. What I don’t do, however, is drop the ball.

I keep my inbox empty or as close as possible. I don’t move anything to a long-term to do list unless it’s a personal project. Anything client-related is up-front and center because I put it there. Things shift in priority, no doubt, but I don’t stop doing things because I forgot about them/. They either lost everyone’s interest or died off.

This helps me keep very current with everything I’m doing and helps me to consciously lose track of things that don’t matter.

4. I stay very organized

I wouldn’t say that I’m anal about everything but everything definitely has it’s place.

Emails get saved if they’re important and should stay as emails. Otherwise, their content gets stripped quickly and moved into an appropriate secondary system (like my contacts or my calendar). My USB drive is full and it’s easy to find everything that I need. My pictures are listed and sorted in a way that makes sense to my brain.

I don’t spend all day scheming up systems and sorting things around; that would defeat the purpose of having a system like mine. I take care of things immediately lest they fall off my radar. Documents are saved and sorted, bookmarks are sorted and printed to PDF if they’re THAT good, and personal information gets saved into Outlook (on my phone, synced at work, and exported into Excel to make sure I don’t lose track.

Again, I’m not the picture of organizational perfection but it’s hard for things to slip through the cracks. I make it that way so I can work the way I want to.

5. I’m quick to abandon a system that isn’t working

If my organization is the glue then this is the engineer to check to make sure my glue is holding.

I don’t “swear by” my system and I certainly would not go out of my way to recommend it (I would recommend SOME kind of system, though). I’m always on the lookout for better ways to do what I do because I always¬† like to save time and change is a good thing.

I try out new systems, software, methods, tools, etc but, more often than not, my day-to-day functioning doesn’t change much. This is because I re-iterate, check, and evaluate what I’m doing on a constant basis. This isn’t quite a conscious process, it’s more like something that’s in the back of my head. If a certain piece of software is pissing me off or I keep forgetting to do something or something is irritating me, a red flag appears and I’m ready to replace it.

Case in point, my email situation. I have too many damn email accounts to keep track of for no good. I have a business one that I access with my phone and Gmail. I also have a separate Gmail, separate Hotmail, separate Yahoo, and an office account. In the end, I feel no more connected because I have a million email accounts. I’m in the process of overhauling this system to make it work for me (expect a post about it).

That’s all

Yeah, just that.

Though the way I work is a bit unorthodox, I’ve shown many people how to make their lives easier using free/cheap software and a system to use it. I absolutely would not be as successful as I am without the technology that I use every day. If you’re interested in learning about getting your professional life together in a way that makes sense and isn’t a burden, get a hold of me.


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