I Read A Lot Of Productivity Books, And These Are The Three Best

My fourth grade teacher, Ms. Skinner, was a strong advocate of “organization.” Within the first week of the school year, she noticed my over-stuffed backpack, the vast assortment of unidentifiable miscellany falling out of my desk, and the papers spilling out of my three-ring binder. Ms. Skinner decided that I needed to get organized. It took me about twenty years to realize that she was right.

I don’t remember the details of Ms. Skinner’s system, but I do know that I didn’t like it one bit. In fact, I rebelled against it so strongly that I refused to even consider a systematic approach to stuff-management until decades later. As a kid, it was easy to be functional while messy; as an adult, I realized that being a slob creates way more stress than it avoids.

Even in the pre-internet era, there was no shortage of advice about how to be more organized and productive. The problem is that most of the advice is of the, “this is what worked for me” variety, consisting of systems that some individual developed over time, but are so complex that for someone else to adopt them is unsustainable. I would put Franklin Covey’s time-management system, and the modern trend of “bullet journaling” in this category. They look simple and elegant, and they obviously work for some people, but I find them so counter-intuitive to learn and cumbersome to maintain that they just add another set of obligations to an already over-filled list of chores. Call me crazy, but shouldn’t a system for simplification be … simple?

Part 1. Art

About ten years ago, I found the first organization method that actually made sense to me. In some form or another, I’ve been practicing it since then, and I love it more than ever. It’s David Allen’s “GTD” (Getting Things Done) system. His book, “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity” is so slim you can (and should) read it in an afternoon, but here are the key points:

  • Your brain is built to think about things, not of things. Get everything you’re storing in your brain into a written system, and you’ll be amazed at the mental bandwidth you open up for ideas, problem-solving, and creativity.
  • In order to truly free up your brain, you need to have confidence in whatever system you’re storing your “stuff” in. The genius of GTD is that it gives you an intuitive framework in which to stash and track 100% of what you have going on, so that nothing “slips through the cracks.”
  • The GTD system can be paper-based or electronic, whatever you prefer. There are lots of apps and notebook templates to help.
  • David Allen writes, “You can’t organize what’s incoming — you can only collect and process it. Instead, you organize the actions you’ll need to take based on the decisions you’ve made about what needs to be done.” Those “actions” and “decisions” are what separates GTD from every other organization system.
  • GTD sorts everything into one of two places: a calendar (used for scheduled events only); and a sort of super-charged to-do list that categorizes every “action” (task) on your horizon by “project” (if the task is part of some effort that requires more than one step to achieve) and “context” (where you are/what you need/who you need to be with to accomplish the task).
  • The fundamental question of GTD is “What’s the next action?” Once you have all your pending actions out of your head and into a system you can look at and work with, you can start to make intelligent decisions about how to allocate your time and energy, rather than bouncing like a pinball from one “latest and loudest” thing to the next.
  • Getting GTD set up in the first place takes a bit of work, as it requires a complete purge & sorting of everything in your head and in whatever you’ve been using to keep track of your stuff (that includes taking your email inbox down to zero — not by acting on every one of those emails, but by deciding what you need to do about all of them, and sorting them appropriately). However, once that’s done, it’s very easy and intuitive to maintain: every time a scheduled event is mentioned, you put it immediately in your calendar. When a project or action pops up that you need to complete, you write it down and put it in your system. Daily and weekly, you check to make sure that you’re on top of everything.
  • Repeating events (e.g. “take out the trash tonight”) are set up with what David Allen calls a “tickler.” This can be anything that makes sense to you (I like to use alarms on my phone), and if you think of them as scheduled events (“get birthday card for mom”), you can put them on your calendar so that you’ll see them when they’re relevant and add them to your action lists.

Implementing GTD has made a huge difference in my mental life. Sometimes, I get lazy or rushed, and I stop adding things to my list, but pretty quickly I find out that I’ve forgotten about something or messed something up, and that motivates me to get back on the ball. Sometimes, somebody will ask me what I’m doing that day, and I’ll honestly say I have no idea; I need to check my calendar and my list.

During freshman orientation at college, I remember a time management seminar during which a well-meaning consultant was brought in to show us how to use a DayTimer. At the time, I remember one of my friends scoffing, “We’re supposed to store our lives in a little book? What if we lose the book?” That critique certainly applies to GTD, but it is countered by two points:

  1. Thanks to modern technology, it’s possible to use a cloud-based calendar and/or GTD app that is accessible from any device anywhere. If something happens that’s so bad you can’t log in to your Google Calendar, you probably have bigger problems than missing a meeting.
  2. If you use a paper-based list or calendar, yes, there’s a risk of losing it and having to recreate it. But if you DON’T, there is a CERTAINTY that you will continue to be stressed, your brain will be full of information rather than ideas, and that you will inevitably forget things or lose track of them.

One of the side-effects of GTD is that, while the system is infinitely expandable, it exerts a self-limiting influence. In other words, if you KNOW your calendar and action list are packed with high-priority items, you’re less likely to accept any additional obligations. And, if a conflict arises (you bought concert tickets, and now you have to travel for work), you can deal with it in advance, rather than realizing at the last minute that something is blowing up.

Part 2. Magic

I’m proud to say that I was into “The Life-Changing Magic of the Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing” when it was still a book, not a TV show. But, I digress. For most of us, the biggest obstacle to developing and maintaining skills that are important to us is a lack of time. Our lives are full of obligations, commitments … and stuff. So much stuff. If there’s a “first world problem,” it must be the way our lives are weighed down by all the once-precious things we pile up around ourselves.

One of the first movies I saw as a child was “Labyrinth.” In one scene, the heroine, Sarah, encounters a troll — the junk lady — walking around with a gigantic pile of things on her back. The junk lady shows Sarah all the toys and knick-knacks that are special to her, and piles them up on Sarah’s back, gradually transforming Sarah into a junk lady too. To free herself from the spell, Sarah has to let go of all the things that weigh her down. After all, they are just things.

That scene has always stuck with me. In college, I didn’t envy the guys with fancy cars and big stereos; I envied the guys who were perfectly happy to live in an almost-empty room with a couple of books on the shelf, and three or four shirts hanging in the closet. At one point, I lived in a tiny efficiency apartment: a place so small, I had to leave all my stuff at my parents’ house. It was, by far, the favorite of all the places I’ve ever lived. It was still messy sometimes, but it was so much emptier than every other place I’ve ever lived that I actually had space to breath. Space to live.

Ever since then, I’ve been a fan of what is now trendily called “voluntary simplicity.” The only problem is that I’ve never been very good at it.

So, when I saw an article about a new system called “KonMarie” (the author’s name is Marie Kondo), I expected it to be another version of what I’ve seen countless times before: put your stuff in labeled boxes, and make your bed every morning. To my surprise, it was radically different. I bought the book, started reading it, and couldn’t put it down.

In a nutshell, Marie Kondo states the following:

  • Tidying should not be an ongoing chore. It should be a once-in-a-lifetime special event in which you go through everything you own, and discard everything that does not “spark joy” when you touch it.
  • Rather than working through your belongings by location, you work by category. First, clothes, then books, then papers, then miscellaneous items, and finally mementos. The idea is that each category of item is more difficult to sort through than the last, so, like “progressive resistance” in exercise, you work your way up to the bigger challenges.
  • Gather all the items from each category into one place — like the floor — and then pick up and make a decision about each one. If you find something from an earlier category that you forgot about, it automatically goes in the discard pile, because it wasn’t that important to you.
  • We hold onto a lot of things because of either an attachment to the past or fear for the future. Here, Marie Kondo is ruthless: “someday means never,” she writes. The time to read a book, for example, is when it first enters your life. If you bought something and haven’t used it yet, get rid of it.
  • Everything in our lives has a purpose. Once it has accomplished its purpose, we should let it go. So, for example, the purpose of a birthday card is to let you know that whoever sent it to you wanted you to know that they were thinking of you. The card fulfilled that purpose, and now you can get rid of it. Old report cards, school binders, art projects and various other things that pile up for the sake of nostalgia cost you more energy than they give you, and you should get rid of them.
  • Things don’t have feelings, but we have feelings about things. So, when we discard something, we should — out loud — thank it for its service. A lot of people scoff at this, but I think of it as working something like prayer: if you thank God for something, it’s not because God needs the gratitude, but because you benefit spiritually from expressing it. Saying, “Thanks for the good times,” or “Sorry I never got around to reading you,” as you put a book into a pile to give away may or may not have some quantum effect on the item itself, but it certainly gives you that tiny bit of closure that helps you let go. For things that are more difficult to release, that can be important; by following the same ritual for every item — starting with ones that are easy to discard — you develop the skill of letting things go.
  • Don’t try to clean up your family’s stuff; they’ll just resent it. Instead, lead by example. Once they see how much happier you are, they’ll likely want to do the same thing. If not, the fact that your own stuff won’t be weighing on you like the Labyrinth junk witch will make you much more tolerant of other people’s messes. According to Marie Kondo, when you get upset about other people being sloppy, it’s largely because you’re upset about your own clutter.
  • Unfortunately, we all have things that we need — like tools, important documents, or office supplies — that don’t “spark joy,” but that we can’t get rid of. For these items, Marie Kondo recommends …
  • Designate a place for every item you own, and keep storage methods as simple as possible. Marie uses and recommends shoeboxes and shoebox lids for almost everything. Whenever possible, store items standing up or on edge: folded shirts, pencils, even carrots can stand in the fridge drink holders.
  • Store all items of the same type (books, clothes, etc.) in the same place, and give each family member their own space, to be exclusively theirs. It can be as big as a room or as small as a box, but it must be one spot each person call their own. Clutter is caused by not putting things back, therefore, “Storage should reduce the effort needed to put things away, not the effort needed to get them out.”
  • Treat your belongings with care and respect. Beyond the obvious reason — cared-for items last longer and work better — Marie feels that the energy we project towards our belongings actually affects them in a tangible way. Is this true? Maybe someday quantum physicists will be able to tell us. Until then, it’s a matter of opinion.

“The things we own are real,” Marie Kondo writes, “They exist here and now as a result of choices made in the past by no one other than ourselves. It is dangerous to ignore them or to discard them indiscriminately as if denying the choices we made … If we acknowledge our attachment to the past and our fears for the future by honestly looking at our possessions, we will be able to see what is really important to us. This process in turn helps us identify our values and reduces doubt and confusion in making life decisions.” Putting your house in order, once and for all, according to Marie, frees you from the burden of dealing with mountains of stuff, allowing you to “pour your time and passion into what brings you the most joy, your mission in life.”

Much like GTD forces you to write down all your taks at one time, in one place, so that you have to confront them, part of the KonMarie process is pulling all your junk together, so that you have to face exactly how much you have. After following Marie Kondo’s advice (yet another purge & sorting of stuff!), I started to see a light at the end of the tunnel, for the first time in a life of frustrated slobbishness. Even just her tricks on how to fold clothes are worth the price of the book.

Being a GTD disciple, I thought that Marie Kondo’s process for papers would be easy. I was wrong! Even though a GTD precept is to continually re-evaluate your commitment to everything in your life, I hadn’t been very good about doing that. In fact, my filing system basically allowed me to hoard all my papers, rather than making decisions about what to keep. According to Marie Kondo, every piece of paper that isn’t a legal essential (contracts, tax records, etc.) or something that sparks joy (love letters, etc.) should be discarded.

It was easier than I thought to put the stacks of childhood drawings and high school and college notes into the trash bag, but carrying it out to the trash can gave me a painful emotional response that reminded me of attending a funeral. Once I throw these things out, they are gone forever. Nobody will ever see the pictures I drew as a kid, or read the notes left on my dorm-room door. And why should they? What does all this stuff do for me, or for anyone else? How much psychic energy does it take, and how much does it give?

As I pondered these questions, I realized that I had forgotten to thank the items, as Marie Kondo had advised. Probably looking like a crazy person, I went out to the trash can, opened it up, and stuck my hand through a hole in the trash bag. “Thank you for keeping a record of my life,” I said. “I have to move on now, and it’s time for you to go back to the Earth. Thank you, and goodbye.” Bizarre as it sounds, I actually did feel better after doing this. I suppose, in the same way a funeral service allows us to say goodbye to someone who can no longer respond, saying goodbye to our physical possessions allows us to close the wound their absence has left. Unlike losing a friend or loved one, however, discarding non-joy-sparking possessions allows for new, more vital growth.

One of David Allen’s GTD guidelines is to only pick up each item once. Pick it up, decide what to do with it, and act accordingly. I kept that in mind as I laboriously worked my way through the pile. I sorted the various types of pens and art supplies into Ziploc bags, and packed them in the toolbox for easy retrieval. I discovered that, once my desk drawers were empty, I had room for the folders and notebooks that normally clutter the surface of my desk. I also found myself rediscovering things like fountain pens and calligraphy pens that I had puttered around with a few years ago, and then largely forgotten about.

The overwhelming benefit of the KonMarie system seems, to me, to be addition by subtraction. By thinning out my books, I discovered that what was left was what I was really interested in. Cleaning out my desk reminded me how much I really enjoy various kinds of art. I’ve never been particularly good at drawing, painting or calligraphy, but I enjoy it, and creating space in my desk made me feel as though I might have space in my life to actually do those things.

By getting rid of the things that clutter my life, I found that I had much more space and time than I had thought. All the garbage — or, at best, unnecessary flotsam and jetsam — that filled up my personal space exerted far more pressure on me than I realized. Without the feeling of tons of crap weighing down on me, I actually felt free, for the first time since I had that tiny, empty college apartment, to spend time on things that matter to me.

Part 3. Power

Have you ever noticed that it’s easy to start something, but hard to see it through? Or that you wake up one day, realizing you’re no closer to achieving your goals than you were five years ago? Those can be discouraging moments. Part of why I like the GTD and the KonMarie approaches is that, after an initial effort, the workload becomes quite easy to maintain. And, the more you maintain it, the easier it gets. That phenomenon — and strategies for harnessing it — is discussed in fascinating detail by Charles Duhigg in “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life And Business.”

According to the neuroscientists and researchers featured in Duhigg’s engrossing book, we spend most of our lives on autopilot, doing things because we’ve done them before. This is why change or improvement is so difficult: we’re hard-wired to stick to our routines, whether they’re good for us or not. If we have been eating a sugary snack in the afternoon, or drinking too much alcohol when we visit with friends, we’re very likely to continue doing exactly that. On the other hand, if we’ve been doing a workout every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, we’re also likely to continue doing that. The trick, Duhigg teaches us, is to make a conscious decision about what our habits are, and to make subtle changes in our routine that move us in the direction we want to go.

“The Power of Habit” is full of very practical suggestions. Here are some of my favorite:

  • Every habit has three components: “Cue” (what triggers the action), “Routine” (the action), and “Reward (“the motivation for the action). Attempts to change the Routine without understanding the Cue or Reward tend to be short-lived. This is why the gyms are full of New Year’s resolution-makers in January, and largely empty by November, and why most people quit their diets in seven days (or five weeks, depending on what you read).
  • The key to changing a habit is not in trying to stop yourself from doing the Routine, but to substitute a DIFFERENT Routine that is triggered by the same Cue and delivers the same Reward as the old Routine. Of course, this takes some effort, but once it’s done, it’s easy to maintain.
  • Some habits — “Keystone Habits” — have disproportionate impact in our lives. I mentioned earlier that I’d heard and dismissed the advice to make my bed every morning. The idea of starting the day with “an easy win” just seemed like some pop-pyschology nonsense. “The Power of Habit” explained to me why that bed-making advice is so prevalent: not because bed-making is in itself particularly valuable, but because it makes OTHER good habits — like having emotional control and sticking to a budget — EASIER. Other Keystone Habits include regular exercise and family dinner. For some reason, they create a positive “spillover” effect into other areas of life.
  • The song lyric, “All I do is win, win, win” actually has the right idea; starting your day with a series of easy wins isn’t just pop psych BS, it puts your brain in a mindset to continue succeeding. Duhigg uses the example of swimmer Michael Phelps at the Olympics. From the breakfast he ate, to the way he warmed up, to the music he listened to before he competed, every step in Phelps’ pre-competition routine was a tiny victory that paved the way for a real victory in the pool.
  • Willpower is a finite resource. If you’ve had to use a lot of energy to be nice to your annoying supervisor all day, it’s going to be extra hard for you to resist the pint of ice cream in the freezer at home. If you want to make positive changes in your life, realize that you’re not going to be able to do everything at once; pace yourself for success.
  • Habits can be intensely destructive, because once they become ingrained, they are extremely difficult to change. Telling a compulsive gambler or drinker to “just quit” will never work, because their brains have become so deeply rewired to need that Reward that they really can’t control themselves anymore. The only way to kick a habit like that is to eliminate the Cue (move to a place that doesn’t allow alcohol or gambling), or substitute a different, equally gratifying Routine.

Odd though it may sound, faith is a powerful tool in the habit-changing process. It doesn’t really matter what you believe in, just that you believe in something. Duhigg writes, “If you believe you can change — if you make it a habit — the change becomes real. This is the real power of habit: the insight that your habits are what you choose them to be. Once that choice occurs — and becomes automatic — it’s not only real, it starts to seem inevitable.”

The benefit of reading “The Power of Habit” extends beyond its sound advice. Realizing both the degree to which we are “slaves to habit,” and the capacity we have to alter those habits, was eye-opening to me.

Putting It All Together

Modern life can feel like a fire-hose of information and obligations aimed directly at us. Having sound, sustainable techniques for managing the stuff in our physical and mental spaces is more than a luxury, it’s a necessity. Thirty years after Ms. Skinner told me to get organized, I finally feel that I have a bit of a handle on things, thanks to the three books I’ve described here.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, do yourself a favor. Check out one of these books from the library, and make the time to read it. Any one of them will help, and all three together — if you follow their advice — will absolutely make a tremendous positive impact in your life.

Digital media guru by day, writer by night.

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