How to Develop a Personal Productivity System That You Can Trust


As fundraisers we do difficult, yet rewarding, work with lots of moving components.  So, a scribbled TO DO list on a junk mail envelope is not going to cut it.  You’re not cleaning your house, you’re raising vital support for an organization that you’re deeply passionate about.  So, what do you really need?  You need a personal productivity system that takes things in, systematizes figuring out what to do with them, and tracks them until they are off your plate.

One of the biggest keys to being productive is developing a personal productivity system that you can trust. Notice that I said “developing,” not “finding.”  A lot of people make the mistake of picking a proven system (e.g. Getting Things Done, Bullet Journal, kanban, etc.) and implement it exactly as prescribed.  They then follow it rigidly for a few weeks, but inevitably a month later they have fallen off the wagon and are right back where they started.  The reason?  Everyone is different and chances are good that there is not a set system out there that is perfect for you.  The key is customization.  Take a component from this system that you like, another from that one and and piece it all together into a system that works for you.  Be open to constantly developing … evolving … improving … your system.  Even the Fundraising Productivity Guru occasionally tweaks his system a bit.

With this in mind, I’m not going to try to tell you which productivity system is best.  What works for me most likely won’t work for you.  However, I will give you seven key components to any productivity system — the key elements that must be there.  The end goal in a personal productivity system is to get things out of your head and into a place where you know they are stored, progressing and under control.  This allows you to relax and enjoy life instead of worrying about open loops and incomplete tasks all the time.  Sounds good, right?  So let’s find out what you need …

7 Key Components of a Trusted Personal Productivity System

1) Capture Everything
The only way to effectively get everything out of your head and into your system is to always have a means of doing so.  This means being prepared with an inbox or capture device at all times.  Whether you’re at your office, at a restaurant or lying in bed you need a means of capturing whatever great idea or overdue task pops into your head.  Typical capture devices include notebooks, phone apps, whiteboards, physical inboxes, email inboxes, a folder or pocket in your briefcase, voicemail, a notepad on your night stand, text messages, etc.  You may need all of these, you may not.  There may be other tools that you need as well.Just make make sure you have a way (tool) to record an idea/task/anything no matter where you are.Another great practice is to do a mind dump.  Sit down with a stack of index cards for fifteen minutes and write down every idea and task that crosses your mind (one per card).  Then toss them in your inbox for processing later (we’ll get to that in a bit).  You’ll feel a lot better after tidying up all that mental clutter.

2) Keep Key Lists
You need one place to keep comprehensive lists of everything that you capture.  These can be a written lists in a notebook or a digital notebook (like Evernote).  The tool doesn’t matter … the existence of the lists does.The key lists to maintain are:

Current tasks list: everything that you need to do NOW (most likely this week or until your next weekly review — we’ll get to that in a minute);

Waiting for list: everything that you’re waiting on other people to do (this is the key to making sure people don’t drop the ball on you);

Upcoming tasks list: everything that you know you need to do SOON but don’t need to worry about this week (don’t worry about making sure it’s comprehensive, but it’s a good to have a place to dump these as you think of them);

Someday/maybe list: everything that you don’t want to forget, but which you aren’t sure you want to act on (usually ideas and things which would “be nice to do”);

Maintenance standards list: everything in your life that you need to maintain (must be comprehensive and include all spheres of your life: relationships, wellness, professional growth, spirituality, financial success, intellectual stimulation, giving back, etc.);

Goal list: everything you want to change about your life in the next six months.

3) Maintain a Tickler File
Do you know what’s better than having a task on a list?  Having it on a list that you can’t see!  A tickler file is magic … it makes things disappear (from sight and your mind) until you actually need to do something with them.The traditional tickler file is a set of 43 folders (one for each month of the year and each day of the month).  You simply file a note or document in the corresponding folder for when you need to deal with it (e.g. in two weeks, in March, etc.)  More recently reminders attached to digital notebooks have become commonplace.  You simply record the note, attach a reminder for when you want to deal with it again, and then file it in an archive.  With the traditional system you have to check the corresponding folder daily, with the digital system you get a daily reminder automatically of what you put off until today.

4) Store Reference Materials
You need a place to store all the stuff that relates to your work or life, but isn’t actionable.  For example, the debrief meeting report from last year’s special event.  All of the actions that came out of that meeting will be on one of your lists, but you still need the report in case you want to refer back to it.  So, you need a place for this stuff.  There’s no new fangled magic bullet here … it’s either a simple filing cabinet or a digital notebook application.  Take your pick and make sure everything that you need to keep ends up in it (not in a stack on your desk, the back seat of your car, etc.).

5) Reach Inbox Zero … Daily
Once you have a way to capture everything (multiple capture devices & inboxes) and place to put it all (lists, tickler file & reference storage), you need to process everything on a regular basis.  Many personal productivity experts affectionately call this reaching “inbox zero.”  Yes that’s right, reaching a state where there is nothing in your inboxes … even your email inbox.  You still have plenty to do, it’s just not in your inbox for you to worry about — it has all been processed, put in its proper location and you know what your next action is to address it.  It’s under control.So how often do you need to reach the wonderful state of inbox zero?  Some folks advocate for weekly, some say every few days, I say daily.  If you do it on a weekly basis it takes a long time to go through everything and seven days is long enough for something to fall through the cracks that needed immediate action.  If you process things daily it really doesn’t take that long (typically about 20 minutes for me) and it ensures that you are on top of everything.  This lets me sleep peacefully at night and it can do the same for you.

6) Conduct Scheduled Reviews
Reaching inbox zero is key but it is reactive — it is dealing with all the stuff that everyone else sends your way.  You need to be proactive and make sure that you are working towards your goals and maintaining all of the important commitments in your life.   So periodically you need to take a step back and work your way through a checklist that allows you to consider all of your commitments and add appropriate next actions to your lists … a review.I advocate conducting reviews on two levels:Weekly Review: Once a week, on the same day of the week, take a step back and do a thorough review of your personal productivity system.  This keeps it in fine working order and primes you for the next week of work.  You are reviewing your lists and commitments in order to figure out the actions that you need to complete next week.  Typical items to review include: next week’s calendar, upcoming task list, and your waiting for list.  This list is different for every person, but you essentially need to look over anything that holds important next actions that you don’t review on a daily basis.Monthly Review: Once a month, you need to take a step further back and think more big picture.  The two key items to review at this time are your list of maintenance standards (everything in your life that you need to maintain) and your goals (what you want to change in the next six months).  Again, you are reviewing these lists to see what next actions you should complete to ensure their success over the coming month.

7) Prioritize in the Moment
This last component or perhaps ideology is the one that may run contrary to lots of typical personal productivity gurus.  Most of them have developed systems that include the first six components, but they then add another level of complexity to the system with a means of prioritizing tasks.  I would argue that this isn’t really necessary and frequently ends up leading to a lost of wasted effort.  Why?  Because our lives and careers are very fluid — especially for fundraisers.  Who knows what will happen tomorrow that will demand your undivided attention (e.g. your special event venue falls through, a donor finally wants to talk about that planned gift, your board chair calls an emergency “summit,” etc.).  If you have a system that applies strict ABC or 123 priorities to your tasks it’s not easy to adapted on the fly — when things get delayed you have to take the time to re-prioritize your tasks to make sure you’re doing the right thing.The key to getting away with not prioritizing your tasks is the weekly review process.  That process ensures that everything that needs to happen this week is in front of you.  So, in the moment, you  can simply pick which item is the highest priority.  For me it typically involves the question “what task will lead to a potential loss of revenue for my organization if I don’t get it done now?” As I said, some people will fight me on this one, but I stand firm on the fact that priorities change weekly, if not almost daily.  Time spent prioritizing tasks is better spent doing tasks.

These are the key components of any personal productivity system.  The key is to develop a system that fits you, fully implement it and then stick with it and TRUST IT.  Only then will you be able to relax knowing that everything is under control.