A Simple, Sustainable, & Stress Free Approach to Productivity

There are two basic approaches you can take to productivity:

Push or pull.

One is life-giving and sustainable. The other is soul destroying and stressful.

If you’ve ever experienced burnout or felt you were spreading yourself too thin, it’s likely that you were using a push system — without even being aware of it.

To illustrate the difference, imagine a manufacturing line at a car factory.

In a push-based system, when one worker completes their work, they “push” it onto the next person in the line — regardless of how busy or overwhelmed that next worker already is.

Conversely, in a pull-based system, a new task is only “pulled” in by a worker once he or she is ready for it. This prevents overwhelm and backlogs, helps to identify bottlenecks, and leads to a better functioning system overall.

The pull approach is more effective because it is more in touch with reality.

If we’re honest, we know that it’s not possible to work effectively on more than a small number of projects at any given time. And if we say yes to too many competing priorities, we spread ourselves thin and suffer the consequences (burnout, overwhelm, stress, etc).

In “Personal Kanban”, Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry explain how you can take a “pull” approach to your own work — regardless of whether you’re a CEO, a freelancer, a solopreneur, a project manager, or an artist.

Here’s how it works:

1.) Divide a whiteboard (or page) into 3 columns: “To Do”, “Doing”, and “Done”

— “To Do” represents all of the tasks and projects you need to get done.

— “Doing” represents the tasks you are currently working on — your works in progress.

— “Done” represents everything you’ve completed in the past week.

(The authors recommend visualising your tasks using post-it notes on a whiteboard, with separate notes for each task. A computer based system will also work well.)

2.) Set an upper limit to the amount of tasks you allow in the “Doing” column, e.g. 3.

3.) Only allow yourself to transfer a new task from the “to do” section to “doing” when you have successfully completed a task in the “doing” column, thereby freeing up a slot.

4.) If you have completed a task in the “doing” column, move it to “done”. Now find a new task from the “to do” section to add to the empty slot in “doing”.

5.) If you are working on a long term project, e.g. “write book”, keep that parked in the “to do” column, and then add sub-outcomes from it to the “doing” column until the overall goal has been completed, e.g. “write chapter 2”.

6.) If you are collaborating with others, you can also add a “waiting” column for the tasks that you are waiting for from them.

7.) To keep things fresh, update and “clean” your lists at the end of each week.

That’s it.

By visualising your workflow, and limiting your works in progress to three main priorities, you become conscious of the finiteness of your time, which makes it easier to resist the urge to pursue 10 different things simultaneously.

Moreover, you’ll now find yourself habitually breaking larger projects (e.g. start business) down into smaller, more manageable chunks (e.g. write business plan) to avoid clogging up the system for long periods.

This will help you to avoid overwhelm, give you clarity about what to focus on, and the overall feeling that you’re in control of your workload.

You’re also likely to get a sweet hit of dopamine everytime you move a task from “doing” to “done”.

Finally, as you clean your lists at the end of each week, you’ll get a chance to reflect on the progress you’ve made as you review everything that’s been completed, which will give you momentum to propel you into the following week.

Picture of Niall McKeever

Niall McKeever

Writer and Founder of The Weekend University. Passionate about making great ideas more accessible.

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