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Five productivity techniques in five minutes (each)

Sarah Blythe

It’s an unspoken irony of the productivity genre that reading its most successful books often feels, for the most part, like a waste of time.

It’s an unspoken irony of the productivity genre that reading its most successful books often feels, for the most part, like a waste of time. Surely if the solution is simple enough to be practical, then it should also be simple enough to explain in less than 200 pages. That publishers often ignore this is vexing for all readers, but perhaps especially for those who, because they need productivity tools most, also put off starting the book for the longest.

The good news is that productivity tools don’t need to be complicated, and some of the best really can be described in a paragraph. Here are five to check out if you’re trying to get things under control.

The ‘Getting Things Done’ technique

Made famous by the best-selling book of the same name, the GTD method involves five main steps.

First, you perform a ‘brain dump’ and capture everything you need to do, from the trivial to the critical, by writing it down. Second, you clarify what each of the written tasks involves, breaking them into achievable steps, delegating what you can, immediately doing anything that could be done in less than, say, five minutes. You then categorize your tasks—group domestic to-dos and creative to-dos, for example—and assign a priority level to each of them. After reflecting on the list (step four), which allows you to evaluate your progress and address any tasks that are too vague or could be dispatched immediately, you’re ready to start.

Having organised your tasks, you can easily identify the most important of them and start getting things done. Write down any new tasks that emerge throughout the day and repeat the process described above at a convenient time (such as first thing in the morning).

The popularity of the GTD technique has resulted in a lively online community that offers various tips on how to implement a GTD methodology in your own life.

The Pomodoro Technique

Developed in the 1980s, the Pomodoro Technique aims to break all tasks, however complex they are, into short but focused intervals interspersed with rests.

You’ll need a timer (any stopwatch will do, but Pomodoro timers are easy to find) to get started. First select the task you need to complete (this could well be a task generated by the GTD method). Begin working, and don’t stop until your timer hits 25 minutes. When you’re done, put a checkmark down on a piece of paper. If you have fewer than four checkmarks, take a three to five minute break before starting the timer again. If you have four checkmarks, take a fifteen to twenty minute break and then continue or select a new task.  

The Eisenhower Matrix

Reportedly created by President Dwight Eisenhower, the purpose of the Eisenhower Matrix (EM) is to help you determine which tasks deserve your immediate attention, which could be postponed, which could be delegated, and which needn’t be done at all. The ‘matrix’ is a 2✕2 grid used to visually present your tasks as follows:

Note that ‘important’ is taken to mean ‘important to you personally’ in the sense that you must complete them. Importantly, the lower right category is for tasks that you shouldn’t be doing—this is where you might list ‘browsing Facebook’ or ‘alphabetising my book collection’. You can treat each category in the following way:

The Chain Technique

How do you remain consistent once you’ve implemented a productivity technique? And how do you make regular contributions to personal and professional projects that require a sustained commitment over time? In short, how do you create a good habit?

It’s generally thought that habits ‘set in’ after a period of deliberate effort (the mean length of time required appears to be around one month). The trick is reaching that milestone, which is where the chain technique comes in: using a calendar, diary, or chart (a hand-drawn grid will do), mark each day on which you perform the requisite task. For example, you might check the box on days when you spend half an hour learning to code.

Your goal is to not break the chain. That’s it. This may seem too basic to make a difference, but, in fact, the mere act of measuring progress can be powerfully motivating. Once your chain is two to three weeks ‘long’, you won’t want to break it.

The Action Method

Designed to shift your bias towards executing ideas rather than just generating them, the action method has a simple premise: everything you have to do, be it baking a cake or rendering a video, is a project, and every project has three parts.

First, there are action steps: these are the things you must do (for example, “draft presentation”) in order to move towards completing a project. Second, there are references: these aren’t actionable, but may prove useful if you need to check details later on. References might include handouts, notes, sketches, minutes, and so on. Finally, there are ‘backburner items’: things that it might be interesting or useful to do in the future, but which needn’t be done now. By keeping these three things together, the action method functions as both a productivity system and a rudimentary file management system. Your goal is to focus on action steps, using the references only when necessary.