If you’re starting to feel the slog as we roll deeper into 2021, the gleam of a fresh start now a fuzzy memory from January, then it’s time to make some changes.

Just note: struggling with productivity is totally normal, so don’t be hard on yourself. Productivity will always be an ongoing journey toward progress.

In this article, we’ll cover why productivity systems are so helpful and 10 of our favorite personal productivity systems and tools to try.

What Is a Productivity System? (And Why Do You Need One?)

A productivity system is a set of guidelines or processes designed to better help you get things done. You need a system so you can spend less time making decisions. One of the main reasons we have trouble with productivity is fatigue: cognitive fatigue from constant context switching, decision fatigue when you have many choices of what to do next, and of course physical fatigue.

By creating a productivity system that fits your life, you can reduce the number of decisions being made throughout the day because you already have a plan.

Before you jump into our list here are a few words of caution on productivity. In a previous article, we talked about the need to redefine the conversation around productivity, how to take a healthier, more balanced approach to solving your productivity challenges.

The truth is, regardless of which tool or system you choose, a lot of productivity is related to your emotions.

If you find yourself in a cycle of putting off the hard tasks, it could be because you are choosing to put off negative emotion. Dr. Fuschia Sirois, professor of psychology at the University of Sheffield is cited in a New York Times article saying “People engage in this irrational cycle of chronic procrastination because of an inability to manage negative moods around a task.”

So keep that in mind as we run through this list, some of the systems below may help solve your procrastination problem better than others but only if you also incorporate some of our other advice:

  • Saying ‘No’ is your friend, not foe
  • Busy does not equal productive
  • Manage your expectations (Rome wasn’t built in a day)
  • Don’t settle for one size fits all productivity hacks

1. The simple to-do list

The easiest and humblest of the productivity systems is the to-do list. Whether you keep a physical list or use a tool like todoist, a to-do list can be an effective system for the minimalist productivity chaser.

It’s a great place to start but some of the systems we discuss in this post take the humble to-do list a step farther to make it even more effective and actionable.

2. Time blocking

Another simple but effective productivity system is calendar time blocking. Use your to-do list to devise a plan for how to block time in your calendar to get tasks done.

Avoid combining too many tasks into a single hour and instead use this method to block off chunks of time for regular activities like checking email or long stretches of project-specific deep work.

There are a few time blocking techniques that you can try:

  • Day theming i.e. focus on an area of work for the entire day (admin, marketing, etc.)
  • Task batching i.e. I will only check email at 9 am and 3 pm
  • Timeboxing i.e. I will not spend more than an hour on this slide deck

Todoist has a great breakdown of how to apply any of the above to your day.

3. Bullet Journalling

It’s part day planner, diary, notebook, and meditative journal. A Bullet Journal is designed to help you be more mindful of your daily tasks, prioritize the right things and reflect on your emotions.

Unlike other planners, a bullet journal is for you to customize. However, there are some key components every bullet journal must have:

  • An Index: You’ll find this at the front of any bullet journal. A place to section off your journal and log page numbers for easy discovery and recall later.
  • Future log: A place to put your year-at-a-glance, usually at the front of your journal
  • Monthly log: This is your month-at-a-glance, a place to set priorities for the month, list upcoming events and more
  • Daily log: This is where you plan your days, you can utilize the BuJo shorthand to make daily planning super efficient

Bullet Journal author Ryder Carol also suggests what key to use and more in this helpful video to get you started.

4. Single Tasking

We’ve talked at length about multitasking and the serious downside of constant context switching, but there is no one size fits all cure for our desire to multitask. Just look at the tabs you have open right now on your browser…how many is it? 3+ 7+? Check out how you compare by reading our State of Productivity report.

Enter: Single Tasking. As the name suggests, you focus on only one task at a time, limiting distractions of any kind to try and achieve deep focus.

Here are some ways to try single-tasking as your go-to productivity system:

  • Force yourself to use only one tab at a time
  • Create calendar blocks for one task and turn off notifications
  • Install an app like Freedom to block distracting websites and social media

These small changes create better habits that allow you to get (and stay) focused.

5. Pomodoro Technique

Like single-tasking, the Pomodoro Technique forces you to focus on just one task, but with one twist – a timer. This productivity system is great for anyone who wants to do work in short bursts rather than long sprints of blocked time.

Each block is 25 minutes, all you have to do is set the timer and work without distractions. After four “Pomodoros”, you take a longer break of 15-30 minutes to reset.

This method allows you to resist distractions and focus on the task at hand. Since 25 minutes is not that long of a time to stay focused, productivity within that time frame can feel more achievable.

6. GTD (Get Things Done)

Productivity expert David Allen introduced the world to GTD in 2001 and it has inspired a global productivity movement.

GTD is a way to organize all of your to-do lists, priorities, and schedule in one productivity system. Unlike some of the other productivity systems on this list, GTD can feel more complex, but it is also one of the most customizable to your needs.

There are five key pillars to GTD:

  • Capture everything
  • Clarify the things you need to do
  • Organize your action items by priority and categorize them
  • Reflect on your to-do lists
  • Engage by choosing your next action and get to work

Charli Tip: Stressed about how to implement this? Listen to David Allen himself breakdown how to practice stress-free productivity on the Unmistakable Creative podcast here.

7. Kanban

One of the easier productivity systems on this list only has a few simple rules to follow. Building your personal Kanban board is just a to-do list that is split into three categories: to do, in progress, and done.

This list is organized visually so you get a great at-a-glance view of your work. Tools like Trello make it easy to set up your personal Kanban with cards.

There are only two rules:

  • Visualize your work
  • Limit your work in progress (WIP)

Learn more about implementing Kanban in this Lifehacker article.

Charli Tip: Don’t want to get yet another tool like Trello? Try using Google task to build your to-do lists. Pros: Visible in your inbox as a Gmail extension so you don’t have to keep another tab open.

8. Eat the Frog

One of the best books on productivity is ‘Eat that Frog’ by Brian Tracy. In the book he says, If you have to eat two frogs, eat the ugliest one first. This is to say, you should always start with your hardest project first.

This time management technique works because our brains are wired to want instant gratification, which is why we often will gravitate towards the easier tasks even if they don’t get us closer to our main goals. Tracy also says to eat the frog as soon as possible, there’s no use just staring at it.

Translation: Do your hardest most time-consuming task first thing in the morning.

If you’re prone to procrastination and find yourself checking items off a list but never really feeling productive, this system might be right for you.

Charli Tip: It’s important to set goals and objectives. This helps you figure out the tasks that move the needle for whatever it may be, whether business growth or personal productivity. Check out our templates for how to effectively plan, set, and track your goals here.

9. Eisenhower Matrix

This method is all about helping you prioritize. If you know what you have to do but find yourself losing hours just trying to figure out which task to do first, this matrix can help.

Developed by the former president of the United States Dwight D. Eisenhower the matrix is a simple tool to aid prioritization and organization of tasks.

Eisenhower Matrix

Like Eat the Frog, understanding the difference between what is urgent and what is important for long-term goals will help you distinguish where they fall in the priority matrix.

10. Build a second brain

Now, this is one of the more complex but interesting productivity systems on the list. How to build a second brain like Tiago Forte.

We could write a whole article just on this system but for now, here’s what you need to know about this method.

Tiago Forte Second Brain

Tiago Forte designed this system to help us create an organization system that improves the recall of information we need to do our work every day. It’s a productivity system on steroids. There are countless courses and videos online that can teach you about his methodology, but here is the cliff notes version:

  • There are two key concepts to remember CODE (Collect. Organize. Distill. Express) and PARA (Project. Area of responsibility. Resource. Archive). This organization system is the foundation for your second brain.
  • CODE is the behavioral steps you need to learn first before you dive into tool
  • PARA is what you use to organize your content digitally

Tiago Forte’s Second Brain method helps people to save their best ideas, organize their learning, and expand their creative output.

Charli Tip: As your smart content assistant, Charli can help you digitally organize content according to Tiago’s PARA method. Sign up for free to give it a try.