Productivity Systems - What Are They and How Can They Help My Small Business?

October 1, 2021

It's easy to start using productivity systems but finding the right one to fit your needs can be challenging. Join us as we explore the world of productivity systems and look at some of the most popular systems for small businesses. Save time, improve your work/life balance, and be a more productive person.

Productivity Systems - What Are They and How Can They Help My Small Business?

What is 'productivity'?

Productivity is a measure of how much work we do in a given amount of time. As small business owners, we often find ourselves 'spinning many plates', 'wearing many hats,' and running around 'putting out fires' - is that too many cliches for one sentence? Hopefully you can see the point I'm making - we have a lot to do. In fact, a survey by TAB revealed that 84% of us are working over 40 hours per week, and 1 in 10 of us feel continuously overwhelmed by our responsibilities.

This is why improving our productivity should be at the top of our priorities. Author and entrepreneur Tony Robbin hit the nail on the head when he said;

'We all have 24 hours in a day; productivity is being able to make the most of them and create lasting habits of achievement and fulfilment instead of chasing endless lists of tasks. In other words, work smarter, not harder.'

Productivity isn't about being busy. It's not about the 'hustle'. It is simply accomplishing more each day by working as efficiently as possible. 

What are 'productivity systems'?

Let's throw any confusion out of the window - productivity systems and productivity software are two very different things. 

Productivity software are apps utilised in the production of information, for example, Google Docs, Excel, Photoshop etc. 

Productivity systems are methods, guidelines, and processes designed to increase productivity. 

You may already be using a productivity system without realising it. Say, for example, you're washing a car - your goal is to get the whole car clean. You would probably start at the top and work your way down. This would be a productive system because it uses the least amount of energy, time, and soap. If you started at the bottom, it would be counter-productive as the dirt from the roof would run down the clean sides, and you would need to clean them again - using up more time, more energy, and more soap.

A productivity system is a way of doing more with less - working smarter, not harder. 

Why do I need a system for productivity?

There are daily tasks and duties that, as small business owners, we have to do - it's part of running a business. Often though, it can feel like these tasks take us away from our essential tasks. Wouldn't we rather be strategising or building relationships - things that will push our business forwards. Having too many things to do, feeling overwhelmed and having split focus leads to poor time management, procrastination, and distractions. 

Productivity systems help us to keep track of our priorities. They serve as a reminder of why we need to do something. They allow us to stay focused on the task at hand. Overall, they enable us to accomplish more each day through smarter working, not harder working.

As an article in Psychology Today reveals;

'Evidence suggests that people who are able to maintain strong levels of productivity tend to engage in certain behaviours. These include: setting clear boundaries between "work" and "life"; saying "no" to new tasks when they are overburdened; prioritising regular breaks and time off, and happily collaborating with others in ways that benefit both parties.'

Implementing productivity systems into your small business doesn't just have a powerful impact on your business but also on your life in general.

Which productivity system is right for me?

The key to finding the right productivity system is experimentation. 

Everyone is different; there is no one size fits all. Your productivity will naturally ebb and flow from day to day, so it's a good idea to pick a few that pique your interest and try each one for a week or so. 

To help narrow your choice down, think about the following:

  1. Do you like a lot of structure, or do you work better with simple guidelines?
  2. What's your biggest motivator? What challenges and inspires you?
  3. Do you have any existing systems or processes? How would you like your productivity system to fit in?
  4. How do you like information to be displayed? Are you a visual person, or do you prefer lists of information?

Carl Pullein, a renowned productivity and time management coach, explains the three elements of a sound productivity system;

'At the simplest level are tasks. Things that need to be done to move something forward or to maintain equilibrium. Then there are projects. Projects (and goals) are groups of connected tasks designed to reach a clearly defined outcome by a specified date. And finally, areas of focus and these are the things you have identified as being important to you that you want to maintain and improve. These are often related to your finances, your health and your career.'
Carl Pullein's Area of Focus - A graphic showing the three parts to a good productivity system

You might find that you prefer to use different systems for different things. For example, a list may work best for your everyday tasks, and the Eisenhower matrix for your overall business goals. Or you might find that some productivity systems work better for each area of focus - for example, SMART goals for physical and mental health and OKR methodology for business. 

This is the beauty of having such a wide variety of systems available. You can even tailor them to be the perfect fit for you and your small business.

When you find a system or a mix of systems, you need to use them consistently. This may sound like a chore, but once you have found a system that works for you it won't feel like it. 

It takes discipline, time, and commitment to find and practice a new productivity system. But once you've integrated the right system, it can seem effortless, and you'll reap the benefits of your increased productivity in no time.

Can I create my own productivity system?

The simple answer is yes. But if you're new to productivity systems, I suggest you try a few of the examples below and tweak them as you see fit. Why reinvent the wheel when you can use the experts' research, knowledge, and experience as a basis for your productivity system. 

It might be that you find yourself benefitting from Eat that Frog, but you struggle with motivation first thing in the morning. Could you try it before lunch instead? You can then go into the afternoon with a clear mind and avoid battling with yourself first thing in the morning. If you've not heard of Eat that Frog - don't worry, we won't actually be eating frogs, all will be revealed later on.

Productivity systems change and evolve over time. This is why you will often see similarities between different systems. New systems have been created on the foundations of previous ones. New knowledge comes along which supports slightly different ways of working and so the modernisation of existing systems begins. Your own systems will change and evolve as you learn more about the productivity systems out there and more about your own productivity.

It's okay to build your own Frankenstein from multiple systems. Don't be afraid to combine and tailor existing systems to create one that strikes the perfect balance for you and your small business. Just remember to review it often, making sure it continues to do what it's designed to do - improve productivity.

What are the most popular productivity systems and how do they increase productivity?

There are many different productivity systems out there that increase productivity; some simple, some more complex. The key is to find the one that delivers the best results for you and your small business. Here are a few to experiment with:

Getting Things Done

What is Getting Things Done?

Getting Things Done (GTD) was made popular by David Allen in his book "Getting Things Done." The GTD method takes thoughts, ideas, and tasks out of your head and puts them into a system. This provides you with a clearer mind. You then use the system to set reminders, declutter, organise, and manage your tasks. By following the system, you spend less time thinking about what to do and how to do it, and more time doing it.

GTD has five steps, these are:

Step 1 - Capture - This is essentially one big brain dump. Write, record, or gather anything and everything that is on your mind. These can be tasks, goals, ideas, emails, tabs etc, no matter how big or small, capture them.

Step 2 - Clarify - For each item you captured, ask yourself, 'Is it actionable?' If it is, decide what that action should be. If an item has more than one action it becomes a 'project', so if that's the case, label it 'project'. If the item is not actionable, you need to choose whether to get rid of it, save it for reference, or put it on hold to think about later.

Step 3 - Organise - This is simply putting the item where it belongs. If you've chosen to get rid of it then throw it away or delete it. Find a home for your reference items. Sort your tasks; - add them to your to-do list, delegate them or put them on hold. Be mindful of their priority when doing this. Set reminders and add dates to your calendar where necessary. 

Step 4 - Reflect - You should update and review your items regularly (at least once a week) to maintain control and focus.

Step 5 - Engage - Now you simply get to work. Use your trusted system to make decisions and take action with confidence and clarity.

How does Getting Things Done improve productivity?

Getting Things Done gives you focus and direction, which reduces procrastination and increases productivity. It provides a clearer mind and helps to prevent distractions, thereby improving productivity further.


What is Kanban?

Kanban is a visual system for managing your work as it moves through different stages. It was initially developed by Toyota who were looking to improve their manufacturing processes. Since then, it has grown in popularity and is used by many from large IT companies to freelancers and small business owners worldwide.

There are three parts to Kanban:

A graphic showing the three parts of Kanban - Ashwood VA

There are many Kanban-style apps, but you can also just use a spreadsheet or post-it notes. The idea is that you write the task on the card and move it across the columns until it is completed. 

You might want to add additional notes to the card, such as due dates, assignees, attachments, links, comments; any important information or anything that will help you carry out the task. You might also want to set work in progress limits; this is simply the number of tasks on the go at any one time.

How does Kanban improve productivity?

Kanban is a great way to manage your work visually. It makes it easy to identify and address bottlenecks and inefficiencies, which can help improve efficiency and productivity. Setting work in progress limits forces you to focus on one task at a time, which studies show increases productivity and helps keep you engaged and focused. 

Pomodoro technique

What is the Pomodoro technique?

The Pomodoro technique uses a timer to break your working time into separate super-focused intervals. It was invented by Francesco Cirillo when he was a student in Rome in the late 1980s. It's a popular technique because it is so simple to implement.

Step 1: Choose a task you would like to get done - It doesn't matter what the task is, so long as it deserves your complete focus.

Step 2: Set a timer for 25 minutes - Decide to spend the next 25 minutes focusing solely on that task with your undivided attention. It might be a good idea to clear away anything that might distract you (mute those notifications and put that phone out of reach).

Step 3: Work on the task until the timer goes off - Immerse yourself in the task and try to stay focused. This can be easier said than done to begin with, but you'll soon get the hang of it. It helps to have a piece of paper next to you so if anything is playing on your mind, such as trying to remember to do something, you can write it down and then refocus on the task at hand.

Step 4: Take a short break - It's up to you what you choose to do in this time but make sure it's not work-related. Grab a cuppa, take a walk, or simply sit back, relax, and let your mind wander. Just 5-10 minutes should do it.

Step 5: Continue until you have done four stints, then take an extended break. This allows your brain time to rest and assimilate new information. 20-30 minutes is usually a reasonable amount of time. Again, it is up to you what you do in this time but don't be tempted to continue work-related activities.

How does the Pomodoro technique improve productivity?

The Pomodoro technique simplifies your work. It helps you to see how much time and effort each task requires. This allows you to decide if certain tasks are a good use of your time and helps to beat procrastination. The most significant benefit is that it dramatically reduces distractions and improves focus so that you can get more done in the same amount of time each day.

Time blocking techniques

What are time blocking techniques?

Time blocking techniques are similar to the Pomodoro technique in that you are splitting your working time into sections. With time blocking, you break your day into blocks and work on a specific activity in each block.

For example, you may decide to check your email between 8 am - 9 am, work on a particular task between 9.30-11.30, then make some calls between 12.00-1.00 before having lunch between 1.00-2.00.

A graphic showing what a calendar might look like once the time blocking technique has been implemented - Ashwood VA

Be aware of the planning fallacy when you are using a time blocking technique.

The planning fallacy is a phenomenon in which predictions about how much time will be needed to complete a future task display an optimism bias and underestimate the time needed.

It's a good idea to overestimate or include some buffer time between blocks.

How do time blocking techniques improve productivity?

Time blocking techniques are a great way to bring structure to your schedule and they give you an extra push to complete tasks in a given time. There is no time for distractions, so it helps to keep your focus on the task at hand - improving efficiency and productivity. Planning tasks ahead of time eliminates the quandary of where to start or what to do next thereby preventing the risk of procrastination.

To-do list / must-do list

What is a to-do list / must-do list?

We all know what a to-do list is, and most of us use them daily. To-do lists help us to keep track of the tasks we need to do. We write the task down, we do it, we mark it as done - simple enough. 

Done well, a to-do list can be highly motivating and can help to improve productivity. Fall off the beaten track however, and it can all too quickly become overwhelming and oppressing. Here are a few tips to stay on track with your to-do's:

How do to-do lists / must-do lists improve productivity?

There are a surprising number of ways that a simple to-do list can improve productivity. The achievement of crossing items off the list and reviewing what you have done that day can boost motivation, increasing productivity. To-do lists also bring a sense of accountability, ensuring you take responsibility for completing the task. They can also help to reduce stress by providing a clearer mind. However, the most significant productivity increase comes from simply knowing what you've got coming up, enabling proper planning and organisation, and aiding in the discovery of items you can delegate.

Zen to Done

What is Zen to Done?

Zen to Done is an alternative to Getting Things Done (GTD). It was created by author Leo Babauta and primarily focuses on the 'doing' instead of the 'planning' or the 'system.' 

Zen to Done provides ten habits that should each be practised separately over 30 days. Once a habit has been mastered, you move on to the next. You do not need to adopt all ten habits, and you can do them in any order. 

These habits are:

How does Zen to Done improve productivity?

The Zen to Done habit list may seem long, but it’s an incredibly simple way to increase productivity. There are no real hard and fast rules in the Zen to Done system; it should be viewed as a guide that helps to create a system tailored to you. It ushers you to complete tasks in a way that will prevent overwhelm, thereby reducing stress and procrastination. It encourages you to take as much as possible off your plate and puts your attention towards the important tasks so you can excel at them, further reducing overwhelm and increasing efficiency.

By implementing the steps and building them into habits, productivity becomes ingrained and occurs naturally rather than feeling forced - it becomes a transformation rather than a system.

Eat that frog first

What does it mean to eat that frog first?

Eating a frog means tackling the most challenging, dreaded task on your to-do list. This popular technique comes from a book by Brian Tracey called ‘Eat That Frog’. Brian Tracey took the idea from a quote by Mark Twain;

'Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.' In other words, do the most challenging thing first, and everything else will seem easier. '

Brian Tracy comments that;

'The key to reaching high levels of performance and productivity is to develop the lifelong habit of tackling your major task first thing each morning... Every morning when you begin working, take action on the most important task you can accomplish to achieve your most important goal at the moment.'  

How does eating the frog first improve productivity?

Eat that frog first is an excellent system for beating procrastination. We’re all guilty of putting off tasks now and again, but we must be careful not to put off tasks that lead us to accomplish our goals. By committing ourselves to the most important task first thing in the morning, we are not giving ourselves time to talk our way out of it. We see it, we do it, we accomplish it, leading to less procrastination and therefore, higher productivity.

It also helps us focus for the rest of the day. Knowing something important needs to be done takes up a lot of space in our minds. So, accomplishing that task first frees up space, clears our mind and brings more focus to the rest of the day, further improving our productivity.

MoSCoW prioritisation

What is MoSCoW prioritisation?

The MoSCoW prioritisation method provides a framework that aids in the discovery of what really matters. This enables you to prioritise your tasks accordingly. It is commonly used in product development when deciding which features to implement but is just as useful when determining the prioritisation of your to-do list. MoSCoW prioritisation stands for 'Must', 'Should', 'Could', 'Won't'.

A  diagram showing the MoSCoW framework - Ashwood VA

There are three simple steps to using MoSCoW prioritisation:

Step 1: Write a to-do list. Treat this as a brain dump; get everything out of your mind and down on paper.

Step 2: Go through the list and categorise each task. Must - tasks that are non-negotiable and must be done. Should - tasks that need to be done but are not critical. Could - tasks that you would like to do but aren't necessary at the moment. Won't - items that you currently deem a waste of time or resources.

Step 3: Prioritise your tasks accordingly to the category they are in.

How does MoSCoW prioritisation improve productivity?

MoSCoW prioritisation helps to increase productivity when you are feeling overwhelmed by the number of tasks that need to be done. The more overwhelmed we become, the harder it is to focus and the more we begin to procrastinate. By taking a step back and prioritising tasks, we can see the bigger picture and plan our time accordingly.

OKR methodology

What is OKR methodology?

OKR stands for Objectives and Key Results. It is a goal-setting framework used by the likes of Google. It breaks down your strategies and goals into manageable chunks and provides an easy way of evaluating how well you are doing.

There are three parts to the OKR methodology:

OKRs are usually set quarterly, but they need reviewing regularly. When reviewing them ask yourself, 'am I on track,' 'what has been achieved so far,' 'have there been any set-backs,' and 'does anything need changing?'

At the end of the quarter, it's time to measure the success of the OKR methodology; we call this 'grading'. The most straightforward approach is to run through each key result and answer yes or no to 'has this been achieved?'

How does OKR methodology improve productivity?

The OKR methodology is beneficial for improving productivity because it increases focus. OKRs force you to stay focused on your goals which helps to boost motivation and determination. It also encourages you to analyse how you are working and what you are working on, ensuring that you remain in alignment with your goals and the things that matter to you most.

Commitment Inventory

What is the Commitment Inventory?

The Commitment Inventory is a great way to stay focused on the important things and banish the less essential activities. It forces us to take stock of where we are spending our time and find areas of improvement.

To create a Commitment Inventory, you must first list all of your commitments, i.e. where you spend your time. Your list should include everything from business tasks to home life activities. You then need to consolidate these into categories, for example, business administration, business marketing, business strategising, housework, hobbies, and personal errands.

Next, allocate a percentage of time that you can commit each day to each category. This part can be tricky because there is only so much you can do in a day - your calculations must add up to 100%, so be realistic with your decisions. You may find yourself cutting out tasks or changing the percentage of time you wish to allocate to specific tasks, and that is what this exercise is all about - ensuring that your time and attention is spent on what matters to you. 

A pie chart demonstrating how one might allocate their time when using the Commitment Inventory - Ashwood VA

To implement your Commitment Inventory, turn each category into a to-do list, remembering your allocation for each. When a new task comes along, ensure that it fits into one of your categories. If a task does not fit into one of your existing categories, it might be a sign that it shouldn't be a point of focus right now. As with all productivity systems, you will need to review your commitment inventory regularly to ensure that it continues to be in alignment with your goals.

A graphic showing several to-do lists categorised using the Commitment Inventory. Each list is allocated a percentage of time. Ashwood VA

How does a Commitment Inventory improve productivity?

Having a Commitment Inventory encourages you to stay focused on what's important. It's all too easy to get side-tracked from our goals, and it can demotivate us when we do. Using a Commitment Inventory to remain focused and motivated can have a significant impact on our productivity.

Ivy Lee Method

What is the Ivy Lee Method?

The Ivy Lee Method is an astonishingly simple productivity system designed by Ivy Lee over 100 years ago. Don’t let its simplicity fool you – it can be highly effective at increasing your productivity.

To start using the Ivy Lee Method, write down the six most important tasks to complete the following day. List these from most important to least important. When you begin work the next day, simply follow the list from top to bottom. Avoid starting on the next task until the current one is completed.

At the end of the day create a new list of 6 tasks, carrying over any not completed. If you find yourself carrying the same task over, ask yourself if it remains important enough to be on your list and remove it if not.

The Ivy Lee Method really is that simple, but it will only work if you stick to two rules; 1) never have a list with more than six tasks and 2) do not move onto the next task until the current task has been completed.

How does the Ivy Lee Method improve productivity?

The Ivy Lee Method is a great way to stop yourself from habitually multitasking. Multitasking splits your focus between tasks, so although it may instil a feeling of being busy, it's highly counter-productive, and nothing of substance is ever achieved.

The Ivy Lee Method can become a habit in a very short space of time, which is great for getting quick results. It also increases productivity by reducing the opportunity for procrastination and decision fatigue. This is because you are focusing less on deciding what to do and more on getting tasks completed. It also forces you to be strict with your priorities, and the more you work on what is important to you, the more motivated and satisfied you will feel with your work.

Eisenhower Matrix

What is the Eisenhower Matrix?

The Eisenhower Matrix is another framework for prioritising your work. What sets this apart from the others is that it distinguishes between important work and urgent work. Urgent work tends to lead us to be reactive. Whereas important work is strategic. 

When carrying out important work, we tend to be more thoughtful and engaged. While with urgent work we're often rushed and stressed. When we focus solely on urgent work, we get stuck in a reactive cycle that drowns out the important but not urgent tasks, leading to poor productivity.

The Eisenhower Matrix consists of four categories:

A diagram showing the four categories of the Eisenhower Matrix. Ashwood VA

The idea is to categorise your tasks per matrix so that you can deal with them accordingly. Urgent/Important tasks should always be done first to clear your mind and get them out of the way. Important/Non-urgent tasks are the strategic tasks which, when worked on, can have a significant impact. These should be scheduled to ensure you have time to complete them. Urgent/not important tasks need to be done but do not deserve your time; therefore these should be delegated. And finally, not important/not urgent tasks should be deleted or set to one side.

How does the Eisenhower Matrix improve productivity?

The Eisenhower Matrix helps draw your attention to the tasks that will move your business forward and that are in alignment with your goals. Working on these tasks increases motivation and improves productivity. The Eisenhower Matrix also helps us be more efficient by switching our focus from predominantly reactive to primarily proactive work.

SMART goals method

What is the SMART goals method?

"SMART" is an acronym for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely. To use the SMART goals method you need to ask yourself the following questions each time you set a goal:

So, by implementing the SMART goals method, a goal of 'find more clients' would become 'I will acquire 5 new clients for my small business over the next 3 months by asking for referrals, implementing organic social media marketing, and running a new promotion. This will allow me to increase revenue and grow my business.' 

You can see how effective the SMART goals method can be. We have created a goal that sounds exciting, which gives direction, and which has a clear timeline. We know the purpose of the goal and how it links to our longer-term objectives.

How does the SMART goals method improve productivity?

The SMART goals method helps to create goals that increase productivity. It is all very well creating a goal, but if it is not measurable or does not have a time limit, you will not be able to track progress. This will eventually lead to a lack of motivation and momentum. Keeping goals SMART brings structure and trackability and heightens focus and motivation, thereby increasing productivity.

The Twelve Week Year

What is The Twelve Week Year?

The Twelve Week Year is a book by Brian Moran and Michael LenningtonIt is based on the concept that 'we mistakenly believe that there is a lot of time left in the year, and we act accordingly. We lack a sense of urgency, not realising that every week is important, every day is important, every moment is important.' 

The Twelve Week Year does precisely what it says on the tin; it breaks the year down into blocks consisting of 12 weeks. This simple strategy helps to maintain motivation and drive throughout the year.

Here is how to do it:

Step 1: Set your goal for the next 12 weeks. It is a good idea to use the SMART goal method above for this. If your goal is relatively large, break it down into smaller goals that you can achieve in 12 weeks.

Step 2: At the start of each week, create an action plan of the tasks that need doing to achieve your goal and get cracking.

Step 3: Review your progress weekly and monthly.

Step 4: Set a new goal at the end of the twelve weeks and repeat the process.

How does The Twelve Week Year improve productivity?

The Twelve Week Year creates short deadlines and therefore helps to maintain focus and engagement throughout the year. It provides a greater sense of urgency which encourages action, thereby increasing productivity. It also helps to beat procrastination as the shorter deadlines leave little room to sit on your laurels and procrastinate.

Breaking your goals down into smaller chunks makes them seem far more manageable, further beating any procrastination or overwhelm. The Twelve Week Year can also aid in the creation of goals. 'The farther you plan into the future, the less predictability you have. With long-term plans, assumptions are stacked upon earlier assumptions, which are stacked upon even earlier assumptions. The reality is that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to determine what your daily actions should be 11 or 12 months into the future.' Creating goals has a significant impact on productivity, and therefore anything that aids us to create goals that we feel confident we can achieve can be hugely beneficial.

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