Image courtesy of William Steig/NY Magazine
I have a confession to make: I’m not a planner and I don’t have any real productivity system to speak of.
I’ve tried systems like David Allen’s Get Things Done and after a month of I gave up on them. Sometimes I felt more productive while using the systems, but when it came to assessing my overall productivity at the end of the day, I could see little difference.
So what did I do? I blamed myself. I thought of myself as “not good enough” or lacking the attention span necessary to keep track of everything. It seemed that the moment I wrote something down, or made some note on my computer, I’d never look at it again. It was only much later that I realized that what might be perceived as “not good enough,” was really just “different.” Some people like lists and priorities and systems, while others like to listen to their intuitions and see where that takes them.
Time Management and Personality Types
The problem, as far as productivity is concerned, is that 90% of the methods for becoming more productive are system-based. This is cool for you if you’re a system-based thinker. If you are, you’ll probably eat up GTD and other productivity systems like wholesome meals. If you’re an intuitive, however, there’s a good chance you’ll feel inadequate when reading these books. The systems in these books might seem attractive for you at first, but because you’re not a system-based thinker, you may have a high level of difficulty integrating them into your daily routine.
Although the lion share of the books on productivity are for system based thinkers, the actual number of system-based thinkers out there don’t reflect this amount. According to Myers Briggs Personality Type Indicator (MBTI) statistics, those who have personalities well suited for using systems like GTD are in the minority.
The MBTI is an index of 16 personality types. All of these types are based on four different indicators: Whether someone is extroverted (E) or introverted (I), sensing(S) or intuitive(N), thinking(T) or feeling(F), and judging(J) or perceving(P). You get two choices for each of the four indicators and once you have them all you’ve found your personality type.
The best possible personality type for taking advantage of productivity systems like GTD would be the ISTJ (Introverted, Sensing, Thinking, Judging). Because ISTJs are introverted, they’re better at knowing their personal priorities, and thus able to set more meaningful goals for themselves. Because they’re Judging, they’re able to better understand how to make action plans and break their goals into smaller, more manageable steps. Because they’re sensing, they’re much more able to follow along with lists than intuitive people might be. Finally, because they’re thinkers, they’ll stick with their decisions more often without letting emotions get in the way. The ISTJ is the Ultimate Planning Personality, In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the people writing books about productivity systems were ISTJs themselves.
At the other end of the spectrum we have the ENFP. The ENFP will probably have more difficulty with GTD than other personality types. As extroverts, they’ll have more difficulty determining meaningful goals for themselves. As intuitives, they’ll probably prefer to go with their “gut feelings” and intuition over systems, rules and lists. As Feelers, they’ll be more interested in consulting their emotions than logical actions. And, finally, as Perceivers they’ll be more comfortable doing things “on the fly” than planning things out.
Productivity, at least productivity as the GTD’ers define it, doesn’t come easily to the ENFP. But in focusing on their weaknesses we fail to acknowledge their strengths. The ENFP is great at living in the moment and acting spontaneously. They may lack focus, but they make up for it with raw enthusiasm and a passion for things exciting and new. Their contributions cannot be so easily measured with the cold and calculating metrics that many time management “experts” find indispensable.
The problem with GTD and other similar systems is that they cater to the Ultimate Planning Personality, and the irony is that people with the Ultimate Planning Personality are probably such good natural planners that they don’t need any help from these books. And yet, these books have a virtual monopoly over what it means to be “productive.”
This shouldn’t be the case. According to a 22,000 person internet survey, The Ultimate Planning Personality (ISTJ) only counts for 8.8% of the (internet) population. There has got to be some alternative productivity systems out there for the other 91.2%.
Alternative Productivity Systems
This imbalance wasn’t destined to hold for long, and I’ve already noticed a few voices out there that advocate different philosophies when it comes to productivity. One example of a such a philosophy is outlined in Jonathan Mead’s article Why People Hate Productivity.In it he argues that we should focus on fulfilment and creating value, instead of just getting things done. He says that we shouldn’t rely so much on metrics, but our own intuitive sense that we’ve been doing fulfilling work.
As an intuitive myself, this idea resonated with me, and I’d like to bet that Mead is probably also an intuitive. If you were a Sensing person, however, you’d probably wouldn’t even know where to start with a philosophy like Mead’s. Working without a list could be a very dangerous thing to do. You’d be lost and directionless. So, while some people probably thought Mead was making a lot of sense in his article, I imagine there were others out there shaking their heads in derision.
Another example of an alternative productivity system is Leo Babauta’s “One Big Project” method in which he argues that in order to achieve an ideal productivity level you must limit yourself to only one big project at a time so that you can focus all your attention upon it. I think this is a good idea for intuitives because it keeps them from being distracted by less important goals. System-based planners, however, might be more comfortable working on several big projects at once, gauging priorities and tasks and checking them off a list one by one. Again, there’s no right or wrong here, just different.
Your Own Productivity System
In order to be more productive you must get to know yourself better, so that your time-management habits complement your strengths rather than painfully point out your weaknesses. Take personality tests and strengths assessments, and build your productivity system on the foundation of self-knowledge that you gain from making these assessments. For starters I highly recommend Tom Rath’s Strengthsfinder 2.0 and Dick Richards, Is your Genius at Work?.
Although my own productivity system is far from complete, The more I work on it the closer I get to something that works for me. I’m an intuitive, and hate lists and systems, but I realize that I still need order in my life. For me, I’ve found that narrowing my focus (as recommended by Babauta) is a great way to go. I pour all my attention into one huge project, and I only do work that relates to getting that project done. It’s especially helpful if I clear my desk of everything except for the project I’m working on right now. If I feel distracted, and I can’t focus on the project, I do low intensity tasks until I feel focused enough to go back to the high intensity task. If I don’t know the next step I should take in my project, I gather information until it’s clear just what the next step might be. This system was effective enough for me to teach myself programming and create a web application in the space of seven months with no prior experience.
But just because the system I describe above works for me, doesn’t mean it that it will for you. You can’t just buy a productivity system off the rack and expect it to fit. You have to tailor it to your own needs and your own strengths. Books like GTD are just a starting point. There’s some great advice in these books, but not all of it will be useful for you. Take what you can from them, but don’t feel as though you’re bad at productivity because you can’t swallow them whole.
So what about you? Do you believe in the one-size-fits-all solution? Or have you found something unique that works just for you?
Kenji Crosland is a writer and web entrepreneur who manages the social donations website goldhat.org. Ever since quitting his job as a corporate headhunter in Tokyo he has made it his goal to help more people make an honest buck online. When he’s not managing goldhat, he blogs about creating an ideal career at unreadyandwilling.com. Follow him on Twitter: @KenjiCrosland