As an American import to Britain, I’m regularly surprised by the arrival of the Christmas season.  In the States the unofficial starting gun for Christmas shopping used to be Thanksgiving at the end of November.  But over here, without a handy holiday as a marker, it begins whenever the retailers think is best, which for some seems to mean as soon as they’ve finished counting up after the back-to-school sales.  It’s very strange to see holiday decorations in the shops when most of the trees have yet to turn colour.

Personally I think it’s a bit early to be focusing on Christmas gifts, but the arrival of Santa Claus displays does remind me that it’s a good time to start revving up for another end-of-year ritual at work, the taking of stock in my productivity.  My goal is not just to review the year that’s ending and to set goals for next year, as lots of us do in the fourth quarter.  It’s also to analyse how I am working and to see if there are any improvement opportunities there.

Call it a productivity MOT.  It’s an analysis of the “machine” I’m using to get things done: my organizational systems and tools, and my thought processes.  And like the MOT, it ensures that if there are problems with the machine, then they get addressed so that next year I can get where I want to go with optimal efficiency; with maximum outputs realized for the inputs of time, energy, and attention.

Here’s an outline:

Diagnosis: Did you get my email?

I usually start with some reflection on the feedback that the world has been giving me about my ability to get things done.  Have people been chasing me for things?  If so, which kinds of things?  Are there particular types of email that sit in my inbox for too long?  Have I had any feedback, formal or informal, that I’m not focused enough on the right things?

I usually follow this up with some reflection on what seems to be going on in my head as I work.  Do I have mental clarity, so that I can quickly switch from one task to the next without distracting mental residue?  What kinds of thoughts are regularly distracting me?  Am I prone to procrastination? (Yup). What kind of things am I likely to procrastinate about?

Tools: Batman’s got nothing on me

Batman has his utility belt, which allows him to lasso bad guys one moment and scale walls the next.  Do I have the productivity equivalents, flexible tools that allow me to work effectively no matter the task at hand?

I recently upgraded the computer in my home office, and it’s been dramatic how the increase in speed has reduced distraction.  The new machine works at the speed of thought, allowing me quickly to switch between tools, access information and basically get what I need when I want it.  The old machine, bless it, left loads of time for distraction between the thought “that’s what I need” and getting it on the screen, which probably led to more waiting-time cups of tea than were necessary.

Other good questions for the tool set: do my tools support me no matter where I am, so that I can be productive (if I want to be) on the plane as well as in the office?  Is it easy to transform one type of thing to another using the tools, so that I can, for example, turn an email into a “call John” action if that’s what’s next to be done?  Do the tools talk to one another in effective ways, so that I don’t have to enter things twice or worry about keeping multiple versions in sync?  Are the tools’ contents backed up, so that I’m not distracted by the possibility of information loss?  And finally, do I have cool tools that I’m motivated to use?  Whether it’s a nice pen or a wiz-bang laptop, I’m more likely to engage with it if it appeals to me.

The structure of my organizational system: where does that phone call go?

If the tools are the hardware, the structure is the operating system, which allows all of the tools to work together effectively.  The underlying principles here are that I want a structure that has a place for everything I want to hold on to or be reminded about, and that it should be easy to move things around within the structure.

So is there a place for everything to go?  If I determine that an email means that I need to talk to my business partner Ed, can I quickly turn that email into a “talk to Ed” action?  Once I have that action, is it stored so that my system will remind me that it’s a topic to bring up when I’m talking to Ed?

By the way, emails can be a great diagnostic tool here: any emails that remain in my inbox for a long time can be an indicator that either a) I’m lazy and just haven’t decided what to do about that email, or b) my system is missing something and I need to change the structure – maybe I need a new list, for example, of things that can be done during my train journeys to the office.

Housecleaning: do I really need that copy of the budget from 2009?

What’s in my system that needs a good clear out?  My goal is not some sort of neat-freak nirvana, but rather to make sure that my system doesn’t contain a bunch of distracting content that’s no longer relevant.  Mostly this involves old reference material, so I take some time toward the end of the year to sift out the musty bits, both physical and digital, that I’ll never need again.

Welcome 2013!

By the time I’m done my systems and tools are reinvigorated and I’m ready to face the New Year.  I start this before December so if there are changes needed I’ve got plenty of time to implement them.  Plus having it all sorted early means I have more time to focus on that last-minute Christmas shopping.


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