Six Off-the-Beaten-Path Productivity and Time Management Systems


August 2, 2021
time management

When it comes to personal productivity, the same systems and names seem to get the majority of the attention. GTD, the Bullet Journal, Deep Work—by now we’re pretty familiar with them. But just like fashion, no one productivity system fits every person. Variety can be the cure for what ails you. And maybe an off-the-wall productivity system is what can up your game.

So without further ado, here’s a review of just some of the off-the-beaten-path productivity methods out there. Some are old, some are new. Some are simple, some more complicated. But all of them can—in some way, shape or form—be crammed into Workflowy! So, let’s begin our tour.

The Benjamin Franklin Day Plan & Question

The Idea

In the United States, it’s hard to find a more mythologized founding father than Benjamin Franklin. He’s on the American $100 bill, and is credited with various inventions (like bifocals), kick-starting the modern post office system, and helping write the U.S. Constitution. That’s a pretty productive track record.

Luckily, Franklin wrote about the system he used to achieve all that he did. It’s a fairly simple time management/scheduling system that uses one page.

A page from Ben Franklin’s book on productivity…literally!

Laying it Out in Workflowy

Although it’s not as aesthetically appealing as Franklin’s two-part layout, you can keep track of your own Ben Franklin-esque day plan in Workflowy as well. You can simply make time blocks like Franklin does, but make them each bullet. Though it seems simple, this is pretty effective in helping you see how much time you have in your day to do stuff that isn’t already spoken for. Think of it like 18th century time blocking.

Laying out Franklin’s daily format within Workflowy. Fairly easy!

Just be sure to answer the morning and evening questions as the bookend of your day. And in the evening, see if the good you did was the good you intended to do. And pat yourself on the back if it was.

What can be even more effective is to save your Ben Franklin schedule as a template, and keep one for each day. Then periodically review them, to see how well you’ve used your time.

Arnold Bennet’s “7 1/2 Hour Miracle”

The Idea

We all struggle with “finding time” to get things done. Not just to get the “have-to” stuff done, but also to make progress on our big goals. At times, it can seem like there just isn’t enough time in the day for all of it.

Prolific early 20th-century novelist and playwright Arnold Bennett pushes back on that idea. In his book How To Live on 24 Hours a Day, he makes two claims about the 168 hours we all have in a week:

  • Even in the busiest of schedules, you can find 7 1/2 hours each week of time that’s just sitting around.
  • If you could fully focus your efforts in just that 7 1/2 hours per week, you could do some pretty amazing things.

Bennett says that if we prioritized using those hours on the important things in our lives, we could do things that from our current viewpoint, may seem like miracles. But where do these 7 1/2 hours come from? As you can imagine, Bennett has an answer for that:

What I suggest is that at six o’clock P.M. you look facts in the face and admit that you are not tired (because you are not, you know), and that you arrange your evening so that it is not cut in the middle by a meal. By so doing you will have a clear expanse of at least three hours. I do not suggest that you should employ three hours every night of your life in using up your mental energy. But I do suggest that you might, for a commencement, employ an hour and a half every other evening in some important and consecutive cultivation of the mind. You will still be left with three evenings for friends, bridge, tennis, domestic scenes, odd reading, pipes, gardening, pottering, and prize competitions.

That’s it. 1 1/2 hour blocks every other weekday, and one 3-hour session on a weekend day. It’s not asking that much. It’s 4.5% of your week.

Can you afford 4.5% of your week to block off and invest in your growth? It’s kind of a rhetorical question. If you’re serious about growth, the answer should be yes.

This isn’t to shame those who haven’t been “finding the time”. It’s actually to do the opposite. It’s to encourage you that the time is there. It’s there for all of us if we’re willing to do the admittedly hard work of pushing away those things that aren’t helping us achieve our goals.

Laying it Out In Workflowy

To put Bennett’s suggestion to work, it’s as simple as laying out the days of your week and scheduling your miracle hours. We don’t all have the same schedule as an early 20th-century author, so some adjusting is necessary. The time may be in different places, but it’s still there.

As I write this, we’re coming up on Week 30 of the year. So I’d lay out Week 30, day by day, focusing on where my 1 1/2 hour sessions will go. I then plan out what activities I’ll put in there.

A layout of how you might block out your 7 1/2 hours in Workflowy.

You can fit this approach into other existing productivity systems. And actually, some of these time blocks can be used to get things on your list done. But focus on tasks and projects that are strategic, cognitively demanding, and that serve your bigger goals.

The MoSCoW Method

The Idea

Originally a project management framework based around customer and stakeholder needs, the MoSCoW method is also great for prioritizing and organizing your projects and tasks. It stands for Must, Should, Could, Want. The beauty of this system is that you can apply it equally well just to a single project, or to your entire list of projects and tasks.

You simply establish your big goal or group of goals and categorize your projects, tasks, and other to-do lists based on how they relate to your goal(s). The 4 main categories are:

  • M – Must get this done in order to achieve the overarching goal
  • S – This should be done if at all possible, but success does not explicitly rely on it
  • C – You could get this done, and it would add value, but it shouldn’t be done at the sacrifice of any M or S items.
  • W – You, or someone else, wants this done, but the value relating to your goals isn’t clear, or not present at all.

How to Do it In Workflowy

Implementing the MoSCoW method in Workflowy is fairly straightforward–at least to start. You simply create a bullet for each of the letters in the acronym. The devil, as it always is, is in the details. You’ll need to spend time–both upfront and on a regular basis–putting your tasks & projects into the right categories.

So I suggest that you use Workflowy’s note feature under the task or project you drag into each category. Put one sentence in there to justify why you classified it the way you did. Then as you regularly review your list, read your justificatory note. See if it’s still true, if it still warrants the task being where it is, and re-categorize as appropriate.

An example of how the MoSCoW method might be laid out in Workflowy.

The Non-Zero Day

The internet is a wonderful thing–not just for existing knowledge to be stored, but for new knowledge to be created. This method originated, of all places, in a Reddit post back in 2013. User u/ryans01 was commenting on a heartfelt post from someone who was having a really difficult time getting out of a rut. He laid out a simple 4-part plan for tackling the things that aren’t going your way–and building a better life

The system has 4 simple rules.

  1. No more non-zero days – Do something every day, anything toward your main goal. If you can’t do something big—even if you planned to—do something small before you to go bed.
  2. Love, serve, and show gratitude to your 3 selves
    Cleverly, u/ryans01 talks about the fact that we have 3 selves: Your past, present, and future self. And quite often, we’re not serving any of them particularly well. To help us feel better, we should be serving them by:
    – Showing gratitude to your past self
    – Being more mindful in the present moment throughout the day
    – Doing favors for your future self–that is–making things easier for your future self, which is basically a trick to help your growth into a better person.
  3. Forgive yourself
    Once you do fail, don’t beat yourself up. Just forgive yourself, figure out how you can do a little better tomorrow, and move on.
  4. Exercise and Read
    The author refers to exercise as one leg of a three-legged stool, and reading as “the warp whistle from Mario 3”. If nothing else, do some exercise regularly, not for fitness or weight loss, but just some exercise to help you feel mentally and physically better. The research backs this up anyway. As for books, just read books that enrich you, not so much entertainment. He suggests the self-help classics, like Good To Great and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

How to Do It in Workflowy

As you might guess, implementing the Non-Zero Day system is all about tracking what you do during the day, and making sure it conforms to the philosophy of NZD (as I’ll call it). I suggest making a template, like the one below:

Using a template and day bullets to lay out the NZD program in Workflowy.

The 1-3-5 System

The Idea

The 1-3-5 system (also called a rule) hinges on the idea that there are only a limited amount of things you can get done during a day. But you’ve also got a limited mental capacity–meaning you can’t work on a bunch of big, cognitively demanding tasks. But of course, you also don’t want to waste your finite time each day on a bunch of small non-cognitively demanding tasks of little value. So the key to being as productive as possible is balance. Enter the 1-3-5 system.

The 1-3-5 system is simple: each day, you just need to commit to accomplishing 1 Major Task, 3 Medium Tasks, and 5 Small Tasks.

  • Major Tasks are defined as big, involved tasks that take about 3 hours or more to complete. They tend to require larger blocks of uninterrupted and focused time.
  • Medium Tasks are somewhat demanding tasks, requiring a decent amount of focus, but can generally be tackled in 1-2 hours.
  • Small Tasks are ones that are not generally demanding, and take in the range of 30 minutes or less.

The key to making this system work is to keep as inclusive a to-do list as you can. Any time you think of a new task, add it to your list. Then, be sure to go through the list regularly to estimate how much time each will take. It can help to either break big tasks into smaller discrete ones, or assemble related tasks into a big task–depending on the deadlines you face, and the time you have.

How to Do It In Workflowy

There are basically two steps to making this system work in Workflowy: label as many tasks as you can by type (major, medium, or small). Then select your tasks each day. A basic template can do that job fairly well–using hashtags and drag-and-drop.

As you can see below, each task in the master list gets a hashtag based on its category. Each day, as you lay out what you’re aiming to do, you pick your 9 tasks for the day, using the hashtag categories.

A simple example of laying out the 1-3-5 system in Workflowy.

Structured Procrastination

Since in a previous life, I was an academic philosopher, I have a special place in my heart for those in the profession. John Perry–who has multiple books to his name, as well as the radio show/podcast Philosophy Talk wrote an elegant essay on what we’ll call an alternative productivity system. He calls it “Structured Procrastination”.

Rather than break it down in a social-media friendly bullet point list, I prefer Perry’s almost poetic way of explaining his system:

If all the procrastinator had left to do was to sharpen some pencils, no force on earth could get him do it. However, the procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult, timely and important tasks, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important.

Structured procrastination means shaping the structure of the tasks one has to do in a way that exploits this fact. The list of tasks one has in mind will be ordered by importance. Tasks that seem most urgent and important are on top. But there are also worthwhile tasks to perform lower down on the list. Doing these tasks becomes a way of not doing the things higher up on the list. With this sort of appropriate task structure, the procrastinator becomes a useful citizen. Indeed, the procrastinator can even acquire, as I have, a reputation for getting a lot done.

How To Do It In Workflowy

As you might expect, structured procrastination is very simple to set up for. You likely have some kind of task list already. All Perry’s method requires is arranging them in order of importance and/or urgency.

Then, just keep some worthwhile lower-on-the-list tasks readily available at the bottom of the list. They’re things you know you don’t have psychological resistance to, but are still somewhat worth getting done. These can be bolded, underlined, or hashtagged–whatever you like. Then just get to…not getting things done.

So there you have it: six productivity/time management systems that you may not have encountered before, and how they might be laid out in Workflowy. Whether you’re a long-time productivity nerd or a relative newbie, one of these systems may just be the one to get you where you need to be on your journey. The great thing about personal productivity is that it’s personal. So whatever system you choose will need to be uniquely yours.

There are, of course, more systems out there. If you use one that’s not as well-known, let us know in the comments. Tell us where you found it, and how you use Workflowy to run it.

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2 years ago

This is a time management system without date format and reminder?

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