The more I write about productivity and personal development the more I learn about myself. Considering that was a stated goal of this blog from day one, I'm pretty happy with the development. My latest realization has to do with productivity bottlenecks.
A productivity bottleneck, by my definition (which is what matters, obviously) is anything that restricts your ability to do work efficiently. It could be one tiny part in your process that ruins everything when it isn't operating smoothly. Time management systems can be surprisingly complex and if yours is breaking down at a specific point, it's probably a major bottleneck in your productivity. Bottlenecks are what prevent progress, even if the rest of your system is working splendidly.
My number one bottleneck is definitely my to-do list. When my to-do list sucks, I suck. Unfortunately, my to-do list has many different ways in which it can suck. It can be incomplete, thus making me anxious. It can be poorly worded, thus making me confused. It can be ambiguous, which makes me angry. The list goes on.
In the past, I'm pretty sure I kept working off the same to-do list until I finished it, regardless of its health. My to-do list could be gasping for air and whimpering feebly but I was going to finish that little SOB before I even thought about re-writing it. Luckily, I appear to be growing up.
At the first signs of my productivity slacking, I take a good hard look at my to-do list. After giving it the evil eye, I usually do one or all of the following:
A complete mental RAM dump: If I'm feeling anxiety about my to-do list, chances are it's not complete. Sitting down and mentally vomiting all over a piece of paper can be much like real vomiting: you might be a little surprised at what comes out but you'll undoubtedly feel better.
Re-write any ambiguous entries (must have clear action!): If I can't look at an item on my to-do list and know EXACTLY what I'm talking about, I'm in trouble. Sometimes really ambiguous entries make it on the list because I trust my future self way too much.
Break big to-do's into smaller to-do's: Let's face it, no matter which way you slice it, "figure out where I stand on religion" (this was actually on my latest to-do list) is not a to-do. Your brain knows when you are asking way too much of it. When you do that, it will shut down and your productivity will plummet. Be honest with yourself, it should only be on your to-do list if it is something you can actually DO. Break that monster project up into some smaller steps and attack them one at a time.
Get rid of things I don't need to do anymore: The easiest way to fly through your to-do list is to delete things. Even the most productive of people can't beat that. There is nothing wrong with doing that either, as long as it is legitimate. If deleting something won't have any real ramifications and it isn't something you really think you need to do, by all means get that little attention hog out of there.
Make somebody else do something: If you can't delete something it must be moderately important. That doesn't mean you have to do it though, right? See if you can get one of your underlings (or friends or little brother or whatever) to do it instead. If it's not something to love and it has to get done anyway it's just eating up the time you could be using on something amazing. Find someone you trust, give them the tools they need to accomplish it, and get the hell out of their way.
When I have a beefy to-do list in front of me with well-written and actionable items my productivity flies through the roof. A to-do list means all the decision making behind what to do is done ahead of time. When it's time to work it's time to focus on the doing. No more bottleneck, no more frustration and no more productivity lapses.