3 components of any personal system

Gonçalo Gil Mata — №22 with Crystal Paine

In my last article, I introduced the importance of establishing a purpose for our personal system, the most common purposes being peace of mind, pressure relief, guidance, and results enhancement. Now I’m going to propose three major specific features you should address when you build and/or fine tune your personal system.

A simple metaphor

Imagine you are in a logistics business: customers are continuously bringing you packages, and you need to make sure each arrive at their final destinations. You worry about optimizing your trucks and costs and about respecting priorities. I’ll ask you to imagine those packages as being your inputs/requests/tasks, and executing them will be completing the transportation. The three most important components of this analogy are:

  1. The reception desk where packages are dropped.
  2. The main warehouse where everything is being organized and waiting to be transported.
  3. The final orders that fill the trucks and send them on their way.

1. You need collectors that can provide safety and focus

Things “arrive” to us by e-mail, phone calls, and SMS text messages. The “parcel” can be also a request on the corridor, a task decided during a meeting or an idea that you come up with in the shower. Some will be actions, needing a piece of our limited execution time, others will be events or new information demanding a decision about what exactly is needed. Both will benefit from proper pace, like traffic lights. If you don’t have a reception to hold them safely while you finish what you are doing right now, you will feel the need to address them immediately, which will endanger your focus and productivity.

You need collectors — inboxes, missed-calls lists, SMSs waiting to be read, quick entry collectors, emails to self — or whatever enables queuing of arriving inputs until you are ready for them.

Remember: responding immediately rarely means you are being productive. Emergencies shouldn’t be mixed in crowded channels like email.

In our logistics analogy, this would be your reception dock. You can’t have everything stop each time a customer arrives with a new package. You receive it (collect it), and it will wait until next round, which will move all new arrivals to the next phase, action repositories.

2. You need action repositories where you keep things in some order, navigate through it all, and make choices about what you want to make happen next.

This is where people tend to struggle most. First, you need a grounding structure. Be clear as to how you divide your life. In my experience with clients, personal vs. professional seems a useful global distinction, and then four to six further divisions within each. These divisions tend to stay relatively steady for many months, even years, depending on your life dynamics, of course.

Then I recommend separating focus from pool inside each division, like a big priority filter. Focus is what fills your plate for the moment (next two to three weeks), and the big pool is where you keep your someday-maybes and other nice opportunities to be considered later on. Don’t bring everything in front of you. That’ll mean pressure (demands > resources). Accept choice and be in charge of leaving the right things behind. You’ll revisit the pool every now and then.

For this, I recommend software that offers feeds that display updates and has agile grouping/viewing/browsing. Some kind of folder hierarchy is mandatory, preferably with unlimited levels of depth. The GTD concept of “Project” will be useful around the focus area, to simplify things a bit, but many ideas (special within the pool) don’t come even close to that “Project” sharpness, nor do I recommend that you artificially force them to be. This repository is like your garage. Keep it functional and browsable, but don’t waste too much time making it “beautiful and neat” — that’s not its purpose.

In our analogy, this will be the big warehouse, where packages are grouped by destination, priority, and other characteristics. Some are stored closer to the expedition docks, almost ready to go, others a bit more in the back, not very well organized or important, waiting for their turn.

3. You need compact guides that are really in charge of telling you what to do next

Now, each truck needs to be finally loaded with packages, within a limited capacity. Every day and time of day is a truck: you need to make good use of your time in a finite number of carefully chosen activities. For that, you need a place to look for good instructions that optimize your scarce resources, avoiding following the trap of putting new inputs in charge. It’s not that there aren’t exceptional emergencies — just don’t allow it to be the norm. I like to say, avoid becoming the ball of your Pinball machine.

A calendar is of course a fundamental guide, but it must be trustworthy (no tentative scheduling). To complete it, I recommend a small paper — I use a Post-It note — with very few (two to four) instructions to keep you on track. I’m not a big fan of context-grouping around here: you should be able to create the context you need to accomplish that short list. Make sure it can be achieved, and leave a bit of free space for the last minute surprises. You know this element is working if it makes you go home with a feeling of accomplishment, because you completed that list. There may be many packages still waiting at the warehouse, no doubt (and hopefully), but this truck in particular was a success!

A final comment

These elements implement a continuous flow along the action circuit. There are gray areas, and always will be, but understanding the different purposes of each feature will help you establish some borders between them. Keep in mind what they should do for you: make collectors prevent focus disruption, make action repository the place to study the big picture, and make the guides be really in charge of you!

I’ll be talking a bit more around these three features in my next article.

Photo: Flickr /hmerinomx CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Goncalo gil mata

Gonçalo Gil Mata

Gonçalo is an executive coach, speaker, and author who is dedicated to enhancing top productivity in individuals and organizations. He is the founder of MIND4TIME and author of the blog What’s The Trick (whatsthetrick.com), where he writes about productivity tricks and brain mechanics.

Visit Gonçalo's website Gonçalo on Facebook