The Main Thing: Five Signs You’ve Broken Your Productivity System

“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” —Stephen Covey, American productivity expert.

We’ve all used the wrong tool for a task. I’ve often used my fingernail as a screwdriver (usually with disastrous results), but I’ve found a dime or a butter-knife can sometimes work as well. Did you know a brick can be used as a hammer in a pinch? However, none of these substitutes do the job as well as the tool specifically designed for the job. Similarly, a snapped screwdriver or a hammer with a broken handle isn’t nearly as effective (or efficient) as a complete tool. You can’t even do some things without a specialized tool. You can’t really tighten a hex-bolt, for example, without an Allen wrench. Using the wrong tools or broken ones might eventually get the job done, but it will go much slower than it should.

No doubt you adopted a productivity system for a similar reason when you began your career: because it’s impossible to keep ahead of the rat race and stay productive without one. The question is, does your productivity system still do its job well? Maybe you’ve broken it by using it the wrong way; maybe you’ve worn it out; maybe your circumstances have changed and rendered it irrelevant. Check for these five signs that your productivity system is broken or breaking down:

  1. You’re micromanaging it. Your system should sit in the background and support your work, not dominate it. You can’t ignore it completely, but it also shouldn’t require excessive maintenance. Like anything, you can micromanage a productivity system. For example: you may fiddle too much with it, type everything perfectly, keeping re-organizing it, etc., at the expense of actually working. (This is how bureaucracies become more about supporting themselves than accomplishing anything). Focus on the work, not the system.

  2. Productivity has slowed to a crawl. You’re bogged down. Blocked by bottlenecks. Plagued by revisions. You can’t seem to finish anything significantly, because part of your process had dammed up the system. Here’s where you stop, look over your workflow until you find the ultimate cause of the back-up. It’s up to you to fix, even when it shouldn’t be. Don’t wait for someone else to do something, or it may never happen.

  3. You have too much on your plate. You can’t do everything, and in most jobs (especially management roles), you’re not supposed to. Management or not, see how much work you can offload to others, either through delegation, outsourcing, eliminating, streamlining, giving work back to those who should really be doing it, or just saying “no” to more work. You may also want to give minimalism a try.

  4. Your communications are broken. Poor communication results in confusion, slowing you down. Ensure that your lines of communication to co-workers and your superiors remain intact and repair them as necessary. Then check on how well you’re communicating. Are your emails concise and to the point? Is your spelling good? Are your requirements and deadlines clear? Are you polite? Do you check your email and messages too much? Too little? Breaking any of these rules slow you down when dealing with others.

  5. You’re not really focusing on results. You may have become more interested in busyness than business, emphasizing quantity over quality. You may be so focused on following the system to the letter, you’re missing shortcuts or opportunities to automate. A system exists only to organize your work; never let your productivity become secondary to the system. If it’s too hard to keep the system going, just focus on your key priorities. Cut the bells and whistles to limit your confusion and the need to waste time finding information. Minimalism and “lean” tactics can help here. The most productive people usually have very simple productivity systems.

Failure to Thrive

If you’ve noticed a downturn in productivity lately, look first to your productivity tools—including the chief tool, the overall system controlling the others. Examine it closely, and you may find cracks developing in the fabric of your productivity system. It may not be obvious, but put in the time to figure it out, and change the parts that have worn out or broken. What do you find inefficient or irritating about your current system? Make a few tweaks here and there; when you notice even a small productivity boost, you know you’re on the right track to fixing it. Check it regularly, lest the system break down unexpectedly. Preventative maintenance isn’t just for car engines!

About Laura Stack, your next keynote speaker:

© 2019 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored eight books, including FASTER TOGETHER: Accelerating Your Team’s Productivity (Berrett-Koehler 2018). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and a member of its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at an upcoming meeting or event, call 303-471-7401 or contact us online.

Here’s what others are saying:

“What I enjoyed most about your presentation was that it was not only engaging but also practical in application. I’ve read everything from Covey’s system to “Getting Things Done,” and you presented time management in a way that is the easiest I’ve seen to digest and apply. Thank you for helping our system today!”
—John-Reed McDonald, SVP, Field Operations, Pridestaff

“Laura is an incredible speaker who takes practical information to improve productivity and efficiency and makes it interesting and fun! She has a great sense of humor and completely engaged our corporate and sales team. Laura motivated everyone to take steps to make their lives more productive and efficient.
—Molly Johnson, Vice President Domestic Sales, Episciences, Inc.

“Ms. Laura Stack’s program received the highest scores in the 13-year history of the Institute for Management Studies (IMS) in Cleveland! From the 83 participants, the workshop received a perfect 7.0 for “Effectiveness of the Speaker” and 6.8 for “Value of the Content.” Managers especially valued learning about task management, how to minimize interruptions, organizing with Outlook, prioritizing, effectively saying ‘no,’ how to set boundaries, and recognizing self-imposed challenges to time management.”
—Don Gorning, Chair, Institute for Management Studies Cleveland