Jun 02, 2022
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When you’re looking for a solution to your productivity problems, it can be tempting to jump on the latest trendy method. If you hear of a method that works for other people, why wouldn’t it also work for you? However, many people bounce from method to method, never really finding something that works.
All productivity methods advertise themselves as the one true way to solve your productivity predicament. However, no single productivity method is a one size fits all solution.
Every productivity method optimises for a specific goal, and so the reason why your productivity method failed is not because the method is bad, it’s because it’s achieving the wrong goal.
Before you pick a productivity method, you need to first be clear on what your goal is. This means you need to decide what is important to you, and what you’re willing to compromise on.
Each different productivity method optimises for a specific goal, and so before you choose a method you need to align your choice with what you’re trying to achieve.
If you choose a method that doesn’t fit with the metric you’re looking for, it’s obviously not going to work!
In order to illustrate the point that productivity methods only work for specific goals, let’s take a look at some examples to see where each method would be a good fit, and where it would be a bad fit.
“First in, first out” is where you complete tasks in whatever order they arrive. You have to completely ignore the priority of the task, and no task can jump up the queue, even if you think it’s more important than what you’re currently working on.
This is clearly a very simple method to adopt, and it has very little cognitive overhead because you don’t have to make any tough decisions on what you need to work on next.
This method is a good choice when all of your tasks are essentially the same in terms of complexity, how long they will likely to take, and how important they are to complete.
However, it’s a bad choice if your tasks are very different from each other, and it’s also not a good choice if your tasks are likely to have dependencies on each other, especially if the dependency chain of your tasks don’t flow in the right direction.
“Last in, first out” is the opposite of “first in, first out” in that you always start with the most recently added task on your task list, no matter what the priority, duration or importance.
This means that tasks that have been on your task list the longest will progressively get more overdue, but newer tasks will be completed on time.
This is a good method if you’re willing to sacrifice tasks in order to ensure that other tasks are completed in good time. As with “first in, first out” it’s also important that your tasks either aren’t dependent on each other, or that the dependencies flow in the right direction.
This is not a good choice if having certain tasks on your task list becoming extremely overdue is not acceptable.
“Earliest due date” is where you sort your tasks by when they are due, and then work through them in that order. Again, you need to ignore the priority and the estimated duration of how long the task is going to take.
This is a good choice of method if all of your tasks are likely to take a similar amount of time to complete, and if you want to minimise the how overdue the most overdue task is.
However, using this method can mean that more of your tasks end up slightly overdue. At the end of the day, you need to decide if having potentially more tasks overdue is better than having one task very overdue.
As you can see from the method described above, there are many different strategies you can employ to tackle your task list, but the correct choice is entirely dependent on what you are trying to achieve.
If you pick the wrong method for your goal, it’s obviously not going to work because you aren’t going to get the outcome you’re looking for. If you choose a method that aligns with your goal, you are far more likely to find a method that works for you.
However, the problem with all productivity methods is, they optimise for fixed goals, no single productivity method can handle the situation when your objectives change.
This might work if your goal never changes, but most information workers aren’t picking homogeneous tasks off a production line. Having a fixed method isn’t going to work for you 100% of the time.
The reason why productivity methods fail for certain people is because it’s a wrong fit, not that the methodology fundamentally does not work. A particular method can work for you under a given set of circumstances, but when those circumstances change, you will likely find that the method no longer works too.
If you have a wide variety of tasks, and your objectives are likely to fluctuate, it becomes almost impossible to find a system that is going to work 100% of the time. You would need to pick the right method given the circumstances and set of tasks you currently face. However, choosing the right “just-in-time” method is impractical for most people when they are just trying to get their work done.