But Garland Coulson — a.k.a. Captain Time — will tell you: It’s not so simple. The time-management coach based in Alberta, Canada, has tested many productivity methods, such as the Pomodoro Technique and Eat That Frog, and he said that, although most are helpful, there’s no universal “best.” He recommends trying each one for a couple of weeks, then modifying them to suit your needs.
Anna Dearmon Kornick, a time-management coach who hosts the podcast “It’s About Time,” agrees. She prefers to blend her favorite aspects of various productivity systems into one personalized framework. “Mixing and matching is really going to be your best bet most of the time,” she said. “These strategies are fantastic and a great starting point, but there’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all solution for everyone.”
To get you started, here’s a primer on five of the most widely used productivity systems, including experts’ opinions on their pros and cons.
One of the most popular time-management methods employs a timer — “pomodoro” means tomato in Italian, and the original timer was shaped like a tomato — to break tasks up into short intervals.
The Pomodoro Technique, which was invented by Francesco Cirillo when he was a student in Rome in the late 1980s, is a great way to stay focused and stamp out distractions, Dearmon Kornick said. To get started, choose a task to work on, then set a timer for 25 minutes. There are many apps and websites that supply a timer, such as Pomodor and Marinara Timer, or you can use one on your phone or watch.
Work on your task — and only that task, no interruptions allowed — until your timer beeps, notifying you that your 25 minutes are complete. You cannot extend your session, and you have to take a five-minute break before starting again. In addition to the short break between each 25-minute block, you should take a longer break (about 20 to 30 minutes) after every four.
Frank Buck, a productivity expert and the author of “Get Organized! Time Management for School Leaders,” appreciates that the Pomodoro Technique helps train your brain to focus on one task at a time, and that it can improve your estimation of how long tasks take. (“We’re generally poor at estimating this,” he notes.) But it “imposes artificial time pressure,” he said, especially given that some tasks require more than 25 minutes. You can return to it after a break, of course, but is it really necessary to ruin your flow if you’re in a good rhythm? Plus, it doesn’t account for the interruptions many of us face, both at home and in the office. This technique is sometimes a better choice for those who work in isolation, he said.
Getting Things Done
Dearmon Kornick recalls spending an entire beach vacation absorbed in David Allen’s “Getting Things Done,” first published in 2001. The personal productivity system described in it “serves as a method for getting everything out of your head and held somewhere,” she said, adding that Allen’s belief is “that our minds are for having ideas, not storing them.”
To cut back on overwhelm, Allen prescribes five steps: capture, clarify, organize, reflect and engage. “Capture” means to collect whatever has your attention; for example, this could mean writing down all of your appointments and ideas in one central notebook. Then, you’ll “clarify,” or process, each one. If you wrote “plan birthday party,” you’ll now break that into actionable steps — make guest list, buy invitations, send invitations — and indicate which one you can delegate. Next, you’ll “organize” those actionable items based on category and priority, with due dates and reminders. Allen suggests implementing regular “reviews” to decide which action items you should tackle, while also logging your progress. Finally, “engage” means to act on your tasks and, well, get them done. (This is a simplified description; each step has its own components, as Allen outlines in his book.)
This system is complicated, as Dearmon Kornick acknowledges; even Allen has said he doesn’t follow it precisely 100 percent of the time. But “it really helps you create a methodical system for capturing things, organizing them and then staying on top of them,” Dearmon Kornick said.
Coulson, who is the author of “Stop Wasting Time: End Procrastination in 5 Weeks with Proven Productivity Techniques,” likes the “all-encompassing” system, but he notes that it won’t work for everyone, especially because implementing it requires a great deal of time and effort.
Eat That Frog
A popular saying — often attributed to Mark Twain — goes: “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning, and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”
That philosophy inspired Brian Tracy’s 2001 book “Eat That Frog!,” which stipulates that you should tackle your most challenging (read: unpleasant) task first every morning.
“A lot of times, the things that really move the needle in our life and our business are things that we want to put off because they’re complicated or complex,” Dearmon Kornick said. “We have a little bit of fear around them, whether it’s fear of failure or fear of success, or perfectionism.” Identifying which tasks are most crucial — and blocking out time to get them out of the way — is often helpful. Plus, she adds, many of us are at our sharpest first thing in the morning, with the most focus and energy we’ll have all day.
As Buck puts it: “If you’re a teacher and there’s that phone call with a parent, and you know the parent is mad, go ahead and make the phone call. It probably won’t be as bad as you thought it was going to be, and you’ll feel so much better after it’s over. You won’t be dreading it for the rest of the day and procrastinate on everything.”
However, he points out that, although the Eat That Frog technique provides a method for starting the day, it doesn’t guide productivity beyond that; it’s “not as well-developed as other systems.” That’s why it often makes the most sense to implement in addition to a broader approach.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower is credited with creating this system, popularized in Stephen Covey’s book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” which experts say is a helpful way to prioritize tasks by urgency and importance.
Those who use the method separate their tasks into four quadrants: urgent and important tasks that must be done immediately; important but not urgent tasks, which can be scheduled for later; urgent but not important tasks, which can be delegated; and tasks that are neither urgent nor important, and can therefore be eliminated. (You can draw these on a piece of paper or use an online template.)
For example, one might add changing air filters to the “important but not urgent” quadrant. “It’s preventive maintenance kinds of things,” Buck said. “All those things that are going to give us a payoff sometime in the future or cause a problem if we neglect them. But we really don’t have to act on them today.”
One of the benefits to the Eisenhower Matrix, Buck said, is that it promotes delegation and long-term planning. But rather than relying on it as your only productivity system, he suggests using it as a framework as you’re adding tasks to your to-do list.
Ivy Lee Method
More than 100 years ago, Charles Schwab, the president of Bethlehem Steel, hired productivity expert Ivy Lee to improve his company’s efficiency. The story commonly told is that Schwab was so impressed with the results, he paid Lee $25,000, which would be worth more than $400,000 today.
Under the Ivy Lee Method, as it’s now known, you write down your six most urgent tasks to accomplish the next day, in order of importance. That day, you work through them in order, not starting a new task until you’ve completed the one before it.
Buck uses a similar method, which he calls “the fab five.” He likes that this method emphasizes planning for the following day and prioritizes critical tasks. Coulson agrees. “It helps you define your visions, goals and objectives,” he said, and focusing on one task at a time is a smart idea, because “multitasking is a myth.” Our brains can only truly focus on one thing at a time, he said.
But there’s one big drawback to the Ivy Lee Method, Coulson said: “What do you do with all those other tasks?” Most people need to work on more than six tasks a day, and this method doesn’t account for or provide any direction on them.
This is another reminder that the best approach to productivity often involves borrowing the components of several different plans to create one that is most effective for you. “Different systems work for different people,” said Laura Vanderkam, a productivity expert whose books include “I Know How She Does It.” “If a system generally works, people are going to need to modify it in some way, shape or form. If you go into the productivity literature with that in mind, rather than attempting to find the one gospel truth, you will be a lot happier and a lot less frustrated when something doesn’t work for you. Because nothing will work perfectly for everyone.”
Angela Haupt is a freelance writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter @angelahaupt.