How To Create a Perfect Personal Workflow and Increase Your Productivity

Airtable

Ah, here I am, sipping on my cold brew, sitting outside in my back patio, watching daylight rise and writing the next Venture Out series of emails. I absolutely love moments like this, because I can easily slip into a tranquil “deep work” state and time just flies by enjoyably. #DisneySoul

Moments like this are only possible because of a good personal productivity workflow. And that’s exactly what we’re going to deconstruct over the next few emails — how to create your perfect personal workflow, and in doing so increase your output.

“Being productive is about doing the right things more often. One of the simplest ways you can accomplish this is by creating a framework that only puts in front of you what you must work on in a desired timeframe.” — @mikevardy

With a backdrop that is more distracting than ever — pandemic, WFH, inauguration — we have to be intentional about how we achieve our work. Let’s make sure it’s working for us.


What Is A Workflow, And Why Do You Need It?

“In a 2019 survey, software comparison site GetApp found that 97% of project managers use more than one tool to manage their projects.” — @awsamueli in Harvard Business Review [1]

Slack, Microsoft Teams, Basecamp, Rindle, Todoist, Airtable, Notion, Coda… the list just goes on and on. Chances are you are using different systems not just at work, but also at home in your personal life or your side hustle.

When it comes to establishing our productivity workflow, it must focus on one thing only:

“focus these [conversations, workflow, etc.] on outcomes rather than reports.” — Steve Blank in Harvard Business Review [2]

Therefore, step zero in establishing your productivity workflow is to identify what is the outcome you’re trying to achieve.

For example, let’s say you’re a writer working on a book or an entrepreneur with a million-dollar idea.

  • Inspiration or Production — If you’re looking for inspiration, then maybe you want to be in an environment with lots of stimuli or opportunities for chance encounters, like a park or bookstore. But if you’re in production mode, then you want no distractions, no interruptions, and everything exactly in its place.
  • Solo or Team — If your project is solo, then you can pick a workflow that works exactly for you, without much consideration for shared work assignments or handoffs. On the other hand, if it’s a team project, then pick a workflow that can easily foster collaboration and communicate deadlines. For me, I have tools that serve both purposes: I use Evernote to handle my personal idea curation and to-do list, but Google Drive for shared collaborations.
  • Short term or Long term — How much time will your project take? If it’s a short-burst assignment, then it’s important to have an agile and adaptable workflow, in which case having your data accessible anywhere is very useful. Whereas, if it’s a long-term project, then having a more structured and rigid workflow is important to guard against scope creep.

Understand what kind of workflow works for you, for your specific needs. Next, we’ll explore the most popular productivity workflow systems, as well as some lesser known ones.

DIG DEEPER — Ok, I found the below statement equally scary and exciting. What do you think?

“That means we will be able to combine people and machines to create superminds that are smarter than any groups or individuals our planet has ever known,”Malone says. Malone describes a future where humans and computers play different roles, with computers beginning as tools, then moving progressively into becoming assistants, peers, and then managers. Before we have general AI, he writes, “we can create more and more collectively intelligent systems by building societies of mind that include both humans and machines, each doing part of the overall task.” —How Human-Computer ‘Superminds’ Are Redefining the Future of Work by Thomas W. Malone in @HarvardBiz [3]


Popular (and a few less well known) Productivity Workflows

Some days I feel like a rockstar and am communicating and connecting with people fantastically. Other days, people are explaining something to me in what seems to be different ways, but I’m totally not getting it.

Todoist

The realization here is that people think in so many different ways… and it’s frustrating as heck. How are we supposed to be productive and keep that positivity in the face of such frustration?

One thing that helps is a good, clear workflow.

A personal workflow that helps me quickly know exactly what I should be doing and how. A team workflow where everybody knows what we’re having this meeting, and how it fits into the big picture of the project.

Workflows matter in how well it connects steps, aligns per complexity, and makes things fun.

Now, time for an education on what workflows are out there. 

Minimalist — Mike Vardy, productivity strategist and founder of Productivityist, writes about his minimalist workflow, which consists of 3 components: [7]

  • Align — Which he further describes as “time theming.” In other words, align your work to specific times. You can do this per day, per week, or even per month. Vardy, for example, might take a large project and focus the month of February on a major accomplishment. Or, take a smaller view and align each morning this week for uninterrupted work and the afternoons for collaborative team work.
  • Bridge — What does a bridge do? It connects two points across a difficult path. When it comes to workflow, Vardy ‘bridges’ the task to the appropriate mode of working. For example, if the task requires a deep work mode, then schedule for when you have a block of time. Whereas if it’s a non-thinking task (i.e. scheduling your social media posts), then do it during your chill mode.
  • Choose — Basically, you have to intentionally choose the Align and Bridge method, otherwise the whole thing doesn’t work!

Simple To-Do’s — If you like keeping it super simple and have a bunch of disparate tasks (work, personal, household, etc.), then stick to a simple To-Do, Doing, Done list. Here’s an writeup of a Trello user on their experience.

Scrum And Agile Methodology — Breakup your project into smaller chunks of work, typically into 1–2 week bursts. “These bursts are called Current Sprints. Before going in the sprint period, all task cards are queued up in a “waiting area” called the Backlog list.” This workflow requires great planning and great follow-up skills.

Zero Inbox, LIFO or FIFO — Perhaps you should prioritized by either Last In First Out (LIFO), or First In First Out (FIFO)… but hopefully not. I’m not a big fan of the zero-inbox technique, which I believe means you abdicate thinking for yourself. You’re not an automaton. You should make decisions for yourself on what’s important and what’s not, and therefore manage your inbox the way that’s best for you. Just make sure you’re managing it, and not the other way around!

Handoff — A collaborative workflow involving a team, this is where, “after you’ve completed your part of the work, you assign the next step to someone else. When they’ve done their part, they pass it to the next person, and it automates the chain of command.” For this workflow, you gotta have an IT tool that helps move this along!

Toyota’s Workflow — Has 4 rules: The first rule governs the way workers do their work. The second, the way they interact with one another. The third governs how production lines are constructed. And the last, how people learn to improve. The takeaway? Be intentional with your workflow and it’ll work for you. [4]

Finally, there are tons of other workflows, such as the Getting Things Done or the framework behind 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. But gosh are they boring! So, next we’ll discuss how to customize it for unero numero — you!


Productivity Workflow Reimagined and Customized

Slack API

If you’re like me, then you’re addicted to finding ways to get more productive and squeezing out a few more minutes out of each day. This obsession stems from an urge to do more, to accomplish more.

But, I don’t see this as a problem at all! That’s because it’s all part of a well-balanced diet of mindfulness, gratitude, and positive affirmations.

Ambition + appreciation.

Below I divulge my own workflow and what’s been working for me. I’m constantly tweaking it too! I don’t want it to become stale, and life throws curveballs and I need to adapt. I’m hoping you can take away at least one nugget of information that you can use to improve your workflow.

A personal productivity workflow is the process to create and achieve accomplishments, to include small tasks to large projects.

Below are the rules I use to structure my workflow.

Macro to Micro — In order to know the task you’re working on will bring value, it’s important to know what is the big picture goal. I do this by using my Epic Life Planner and first understanding what are the major goals for myself this year. From there, I simply break it down into steps — from monthly goals and then to weekly goals.

  • Don’t forget, this applies to any medium size task too! For example, before I begin any project or presentation, I jot down on a piece of paper the story I want to tell. By understanding the story I’m telling, it automatically breaks it down into the steps I need to accomplish. #CreateAnOutline

Process and scheduling — Here are my tips to stay on top of your schedule.

  • Reserve complex thinking for the morning, and more mundane tasks for the afternoon.
  • More brainstorming sessions, less status meetings.
  • Direct and to the point email and meeting subject headings. Stop trying to sound business-like and just write in plain language what you want in the subject heading.
  • Calendar management is a priority, so check it in the morning and at the end of the day. Make sure you’re prepared and cancel/don’t attend unneeded meetings.
  • Use color coding in your calendar to help you quickly differentiate various tasks and events. I use red for meetings I know I can’t miss, and gray for meetings that have a lower priority.
  • Block out time for everyone on your team to work in peace without getting interrupted, such as no meeting Fridays.

Jamm Week — I strongly advocate for you to take what I call, ‘jamm week.’ It’s several days off from your normal day job to focus and cultivate a personal project. The only rule is you have to take it even more seriously than work, which means waking up just as early and holding yourself accountable. Benefit of prioritizing your personal passions is that it will lead to innovation in the other parts of your life, plus ensure you don’t have a boring life going into retirement.

Curate Your Environment — Finally, you gotta have a place to work that makes you ‘feel’ like working. For example, whenever I visit my parent’s house, I immediately get sleepy. Something about that place just puts me to sleep, no matter how much coffee I drink! Below are a few tips to get your space truly productive.

  • Music, or no music, your call. Either way, set it up by it, “imbuing a productive energy in the space.”
  • Get Plants — Apart from giving a boost to the green colour at the office, plants help in improving air quality and reducing stress. Most popular and least likely to die are snake plants and cactus.
  • Keep Clean and Organized — I’m guilty of this one. I’m going to do some spray cleaning and decluttering today!
  • Your Accolades — I’ve never been a fan of displaying degree certificates and awards. To me, that’s just a reminder that it’s all about you. (Only exception is in a doctor’s office, in which case, please tell me you’re qualified and how recent it is.) Instead, display mementos of when you’ve helped out others, such as thank you notes from others.
  • Don’t forget, when we get to fly on airplanes again, that’s one of my favorite places to be productive. Locked up in a pressurized can with no distractions.

Lastly, keep the power of positivity in your mind as you design a workflow that can make you smile.

DIG DEEPER — How timely, as I’m writing my own workflow tips, Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, wrote a blog post about his and the difference between projects and tasks. Great minds?!


Get Inspired by the Workflows & Tools of the Super-Productive

I remember like 5 years ago when I bought my first Macbook. I was scared and excited. 

I spent my whole life working with Microsoft products and gotten used to the blue screen of death. But I made a conscious decision to force myself to learn a new operating system. Even today, I’m still discovering new features of the OS and workflow integration with my other Apple products.

My point is sometimes you just gotta force yourself to learn a new process. In doing so, it keeps you sharp and on your toes when it comes to adaptability and common features. Admittedly, I also did it as an attempt to stay young. I don’t want to be like my parents on their devices, afraid to push buttons!

Let’s conclude our deconstruction of personal productivity workflows by gaining inspiration from others who are super-productive, and learning some of the new tools that are out there. I trust that this is just the beginning of our exploration of workflows with lots more to come.

Beth Ford, CEO of Land O’Lakes CEO

  • One rule about email: She doesn’t have time to read long emails, so get straight to the point and have your ‘ask’ up front, so she can take action appropriately.
  • Where you can be productive: “Airplanes. Nobody’s talking to you, and you’re not expected at a meeting.”

Laura Vanderkam, Time management expert and author

  • “In order to liberate minutes, if not hours, from a tight daily schedule, I recommend establishing the 20/45 rule: Most 30- or 60-minute meetings can be trimmed to 20 or 45.” Use the time back to squeeze in a short workout, a small item on your to-do list, or meditating.

Jennifer De Haro — Managing attorney, Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES)

  • “After I experience sadness over having lost a case or some awful new policy, like separating children from their parents, I try to find an outlet — either exercise or talking with coworkers. Humor helps.” Time your workouts to maximize stress relief.

Lee Child — Author

  • “I drink about 30 cups of coffee a day. I like to work before I eat. If I’m hungry, then I’m on the ball.” Not sure if he’s joking around, but I resonate with the hunger feeling as a carrot motivation to do ‘one more thing’ before I allow myself to eat.
Airtable

Tools:

  • Basecamp — Complete cloud project management, free for personal use or $99 for enterprise.
  • Todoist — Versatile, yet simple. A must-try for both personally and professionally. Free, or $4/month. This is a no-brainer!
  • Rindle — Good for recurring tasks and using the To-do, do, done workflow. $15 personal or $25 for business.
  • Airtable — Reimagine the power of spreadsheets and stay organized at any stage of development. Free, $10, or $20, depending on complexity.

Ready To Level-Up?

If you want to become extraordinary and become 10x more effective than you were before, check out my Epic Life Planner and the free download tool.

Click here to get it now!


REFERENCES:

  1. Create a Productivity Workflow That Works for You by Alexandra Samuel
  2. When Waterfall Principles Sneak Back Into Agile Workflows by Steve Blank
  3. How Human-Computer ‘Superminds’ Are Redefining the Future of Work by Thomas W. Malone
  4. Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System (HBR OnPoint Enhanced Edition) by Steven J. Spear and H. Kent Bowen
  5. 10 Ways to Create a More Productive Work Environment: Give your team the tools and the environment they need to achieve. by John Rampton
  6. Strategies For Creating A Positive And Productive Work Environment
  7. The 3 Ingredients Of A Minimalist Productivity Workflow by Mike Vardy
  8. Process makes perfect: how to establish your team’s workflow by Devon Watts
  9. What Is A Workflow, And Why Do You Need It? by Lauren Moon
  10. Secrets of 13 of the world’s most productive people

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