ozengo’s productivity principles

Zen is not commonly associated with productivity. However, as a western buddhist working in a large organisation I was able to draw on the clarity, simplicity and integrity that  characterise zen in refining my work habits. Other sources of inspiration over the years were stephen covey’s seven habits of highly effective people (1989) and david allen’s how to get things done – the art of stress-free productivity (2001).

The list below shows what works for me – some steps, strategies and workarounds I have developed for tackling complex projects.

articulate your vision

  • think big, describe what your dream looks like, where you want to be in five, ten years’ time
  • do not let your thinking be constrained by current practices, resource constraints or technical difficulies at this point
  • once you are satisfied with the vision you have articulated, embrace it and and start living accordingly

translate your vision into a broad plan

  • identify what needs to happen for your vision to become a reality
  • start grouping these change areas into domains (for example, research, skills or product development, strategic alliances)
  • identify opportunities for learning and collaboration for each of these domains (for example, online research, formal study, finding a mentor, informal networking)
  • do a ‘skills audit’: can you do this by yourself or within your current team configuration?
  • identify your personal supports: who is already on your side; with whom can you share your progress and frustrations?
  • talk to people – they may come up with great suggestions or point out a ‘blind spot’ in your thinking
  • develop an indicative timeline and costing
  • remember the saying: ‘a vision without action is a daydream; action without a vision a nightmare’

break down your plan into doable projects

  • identify all the projects that you need to undertake to make your vision a reality. A project is a group of related actions. For example, if I wanted to be an author (vision) and publish an e-book (plan), my projects would be: write e-book, find out about e-book publishing, and publish e-book. The first project would involve months of hard work, the second a lot of research and learning; and the third one could only be started once the other two had been completed
  • for each project, specify the project outcome (for example: complete manuscript of novel)
  • list every step required to take you to that outcome (for example: develop characters, develop plot, draft chapter one, and so on)
  • refine your timeline and costing

adopt a systematic approach for capturing all your project tasks and information

  • the core principle of the ‘getting things done’ (GTD) approach is that you have ‘a trusted system’ into which all your tasks are collected
  • professional project managers are likely to use specialised software packages such as ms-project or merlin 2, which require some training
  • other users may want to use sophisticated task management applications that allow for ’embedded tasks’, such as omnifocus and toodledo
  • other to-do software that is suitable for managing complex projects despite the absence of embedded tasks includes zendone and nozbe, both of which are GTD compatible
  • set up an evernote account. Evernote is fantastically versatile and robust software that lets you take notes in every conceivable way (text, audio, photo, web clipping). Using user-defined folders and tags, the app can be tailored to meet your specific needs. At work, I now take most meeting notes on my ipad using evernote. I ditched my old binder book after it took me fifteen minutes to retrieve a figure. Evernote has a lightning-fast search function and can be integrated with zendone, nozbe and omnifocus
  • describe every task as precisely as possible, starting with a verb
  • always import and categorise your material as you collect it (contact details, bibliographical references) – it beats having to track it down later

prioritise actions

  • use task management software (see above) that lets you prioritise tasks
  • always be clear what the next task is in your project and whether if affects the critical path
  • split large tasks into chunks to make them (appear) more manageable
  • always identify your ‘must do’ actions for any day
  • tackle the least attractive one of these first. Call it ‘getting rid of the hairy spider’ if you like: not much fun to do, but at least it is no longer hanging over your head…
  • give yourself a realistic chance of success by not making your daily to-do list overly long
  • unless a crisis erupts, stick to the priorities you have set yourself for the day/week
  • use due dates sparingly, for actual rather than aspirational deadlines
  • use a ‘someday’ context or tag for tasks that just do not fit in your current workplan
  • use a ‘quick’ tag to mark tasks that can be completed in 15 minutes or less, making good use of gaps between meetings or other commitments
  • tag tasks that you need to discuss with a colleague or your supervisor and you will have a ready-made agenda when a moment presents itself
  • use a ‘low energy’ tag to mark tasks that can be done when you are not feeling your best, such as at the end of a particularly draining day

do the work

  • minimise distractions
  • fully focus on a single task and do it to the best of your ability (multi-tasking is increasingly being seen for what it is: sequential attentiveness – the way of the moth)
  • work from home if you can, particularly on tasks, such as writing, that benefit from sustained focus
  • tasks that can be done in under two minutes should be done straightaway and not recorded
  • unless in a crisis situation, batch process incoming emails twice a day; do not look at your inbox in between
  • keep your inbox as empty as possible by filing emails that have been read in their respective folders straightaway
  • save all emails that require a response to the draft folder: that is where you will end up drafting the reply anyway and this trick obviates the need to go scouting for unanswered emails in your inbox, or to add and remove flags
  • set up project templates and email shells for any recurrent projects or messages

review progress

  • review all major projects on a weekly basis. My favourite time for this activity is first thing friday: it allows me to ‘regroup’ after a busy week, to determine priorities for the following week; and to launch straight into action on a monday morning
  • devote sufficient time to your weekly review: this is where you map out the next week of your working life; a proper review will enable you to trust your decisions without having to revisit them
  • a lack of progress may be due to poor task definition. For example, the ‘training program’ task may remain unaddressed until you specify it more clearly. Did you mean ‘develop curriculum for training program’ or ‘schedule training program’?
  • always review whether tasks still need to be done. Your to-do app should not be a mausoleum for good intentions – culling any ‘dead wood’ will keep it trim and informative

build resilience

  • be patient – quality takes time
  • be kind to yourself
  • look after your mental and physical health; fit in some exercise every day
  • look after your team members; acknowledge individual contributions; focus on strengths, maintain a positive culture
  • seek advice and talk to people about difficulties you encounter; do not bottle up the stress
  • give yourself little treats (going for a walk, listening to a favourite track)
  • celebrate milestones
  • contribute to a charity – it will help others, as well as helping you to keep things in perspective

consolidate achievement

  • document your processes
  • keep stakeholders informed of your progress
  • always be on the lookout for possibe partnerships and synergies

That’s it for me, for now. Did this list make you think of other issues or solutions? Please share them by leaving a comment below.

3 thoughts on “ozengo’s productivity principles

  1. Very useful and thoughtful summary of approaches that work. One of the few I already do is try not to double or triple handle emails, just read and file, delete, reply and to check for messages as infrequently as possible. Thanks for your great tips!


  2. The tips are simply awesome. it is akin to living a purposeful life. Thanks very much for condensing it so well


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