Breaking Through Your Productivity Barriers

Feeling overwhelmed? Here is a mental model to get a handle on your productivity - and the one mistake I see people make repeatedly.

The term 'leverage' is a mirage on the horizon of today's productivity culture. It is elusive. Everyone talks about "leveraging your time" but no one really knows how to consistently apply it. We automate, we delegate, we standardize … and still, we are overwhelmed.

So let’s put aside “leverage” for the time being. This piece is all about using systems thinking to get a handle on your productivity … and the one mistake I see people make repeatedly.

To begin with, what do I mean by “systems”? In the context of productivity, you can think of a system as a workflow or routine that you use to conserve the amount of attention you expend on recurring tasks. Our attention is a precious commodity that needn’t be squandered on activities that are routine.

Systems Protect Your Attention

Think about your productivity as a network of interacting systems and goals. The systems take care of recurring tasks and routines: they are the foundation of your productivity. You will not be able to work towards your goals if your systems are not robust.

The reason for this is that you have - we all have - a finite amount of attention. The job of a system is to free up your attention from recurring tasks and problems so you can focus on your goals and relax. A robust system will give you peace of mind; the trust that you can direct your attention elsewhere.

The job of a system is to free up your attention from recurring tasks and problems so you can focus on your goals and relax.

An example of a system is the way I handle inbound messages: I have two inboxes, one for email in Superhuman, and one for all my messaging services in Compose. I check them once per day and reduce both inboxes to zero. This process takes about 60-90 minutes each day.

In the past, I used to respond throughout the day. I switched in and out of my inbox. It resulted in spending hours on my phone and computer. The context switching killed my concentration. It felt like work, but it really was a waste of time.

James Clear, above, puts it best. He’s saying none of your lofty goals will fly if you cannot devote the necessary attention to them. And in order to do that, you need to get systems in place that protect that attention.

A lot of coaching clients come to me because they want to progress in their role. More often than not, their problems don’t arise from their lack of goals. Rather, their problems come from a lack of systems. Their attention is bogged down in the daily grind; they cannot focus on their goals, and thus they cannot progress.

Stop right here, grab a piece of paper and list some of the systems - those workflows and routines - you already established in your life. To make things easy, pick a specific area of your life, such as the way you handle messages or the way you manage your team.

Your Systems Are Not Sustainable

Here’s the problem: 99% of us are building on terrible foundations. We have all these systems running that are failing by the day, built for a way smaller workload or an entirely different purpose.

We are lying to ourselves.

Notice the frustrated “we”? I am dealing with this myself! Coming back to my inbox, here is what my spiral of overwhelm looked like:

  1. I conveniently ignore how much time I spend on email throughout the day.

  2. This means I schedule way too many calls and meetings.

  3. I start to undergo strain and attempt to resist the wave of work washing over me. I work late and respond to email under pressure. I feel busy and out of breath.

  4. I begin to recognize that I cannot deal with 140% workload.

  5. Frustrated with myself, I give in and let the wave wash over me. More and more emails and messages start to pile up.

  6. On Sunday night, much to the disdain of my wife, I plow through hundreds of emails in my inbox and wipe the slate clean. Back to #1.

Sound familiar?

We are lying to ourselves. You are, I am, and most of my clients are. But if we put on our systems thinker hat again, we’ll see there is a way out of this mess. And that is to build sustainable systems. Sustainable systems are built on realistic assumptions of how much attention a workflow needs. Sustainable systems give you a sense of control. Sustainable systems are a source of trust and confidence.

How To Build A Sustainable System

Photo by Luís Eusébio / Unsplash

Building a sustainable system requires you to realize that you are not superhuman, even though your email client may want you to think you are.

Let's identify an unsustainable system. Take a look at the systems you just listed and answer the following questions:

  • Mark your top five: which ones are the most important? Which ones are carrying the heaviest load?

  • Ask yourself: which systems do not give you peace of mind? Which ones do you still think about when you go to bed?

Now that we know which systems are causing headaches, let’s make them sustainable.

The Elements Of A Sustainable System

For a system to be sustainable it must be stable. This means you want to think through the full workflow and answer the question: how much attention and resources will it require you (or your team) to complete this workflow?

Second, a sustainable system must be self-contained. When the workflow gets out of control or overwhelmed, you want to be notified. Ideally, you also want to decide today about your emergency plan when this system fails.

Too abstract? I’ll share three ways I made my client communication sustainable. I encourage you to apply those to your most important systems.

  1. Map The Full System & Its Resources. Present It To Someone. Paper is unapologetic and lying to someone else is harder than lying to yourself. List every single step and what this step takes. How much time? How much money? Who else is involved? Then, detail the frequency for this system. Is it a daily inbox zero? A weekly clean-up? A monthly 1x1?

    I message all my clients a briefing and a follow-up to our sessions on Monday. It takes 1.5 hrs of my time. My chief of staff, Hiral, helped me build this system. (See how I just presented it to you, dear reader?)

  2. Devote A Place To This System And Keep It Clean. This means having no distractions from other “tasks" so you can work without interruption. Having a “clean” place helps you notice when your system is overwhelmed. I know I need to rethink the way I handle my inboxes.

    To apply this step to client communication,: all my customer communications take place in Hubspot, my CRM. Not because I need to track anyone’s open rates, but because that ensures that every Monday, I have a list of every client and when I was last in touch with them.

  3. Establish Your Default Failure Action. It is the end of the day, you have 70 emails to go and you’re tired. If you want to build systems that are stable, set up a default action to interrupt the spiral of overwhelm I sketched out above.

    These defaults could be: whenever I fail to answer all my emails this week, I’ll schedule twice the amount of time next week. Alternatively, I’ll reschedule all non-client meetings until I have control over my inbox again.

Finally, A Word On Leverage

Let us come back to the term that cannot be named. “Leverage” means increasing the processing power of your system without expending more attention. There are only three strategies: delegating work to someone else;, automating tasks through technology; and lastly, ignoring tasks.

Before you spend any amount of time pondering how to “leverage” yourself and your work, start understanding your current workflows - your systems - better. I am still astonished at how most people deceive themselves about how they’re utilizing their attention.

This is your chance to come clean with yourself. Use it.


Here are some resources if you want to dive in deeper.