My Five Favorite Personal Productivity Tools

People often ask me what tools or systems I use to maximize productivity, to stay organized, or to complete tasks. My answer is typically perceived as underwhelming, as I don’t have a project management system (though I am not against them) and the tools I do use are a bit “old-school.” The five productivity tools I most use are:

1. Written goals

With the team I lead at LifeWay, we set a wildly important goal every several months that we are seeking to accomplish together. There is, of course, the regular and important rhythm of work, but an important goal can really help push a new initiative forward or embed a necessary discipline into the culture. I do this personally as well. At the beginning of each calendar year, I set a goal in key domains of my life such as: physical (typically exercise related), financial, personal development (such as reading), and spiritual disciplines.

2. Artificial deadlines

For accomplishing a big project, I break the project down into smaller parts and set artificial deadlines for myself for each of those parts, and ruthlessly hold myself accountable to those deadlines. For example, when writing a book the publisher gives a deadline. I map out the chapters, and set “dummy deadlines” along the way such as “chapter one must be completed by this date.” I keep those artificial deadlines in view and act like they are real so that I can stay in front of the whole project.

3. Stop doing list

Peter Drucker said, “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” At key pause times in a year, usually the beginning of the calendar year and the fiscal year, I reflect on my leadership and life and create a stop doing list. I want to rob energy and thinking from the things that are not as important and give energy and thinking to what is most important.

Now on to my old school systems…

4. Calendar

Our calendar shows what is really most important to us. As leaders, it shows where we are investing our time, our thinking, and our energy. A well-managed calendar helps a leader proactively place energy and time on the most important. My assistant, Heather (who is awesome), sets up my calendar skillfully. Because she knows what is most important and how I need to work, the calendar keeps me moving from one meeting to the next, keeps me from being in too many meetings, contains all the information I need for travel or speaking, and provides space for me to strategize and prepare.

5. Email

I use email as a “to do list.” My assistant handles some of my email, some emails I forward to a person on the team who can handle better than I can, and some I personally address. If something is still in my inbox, then it is a task I will get to when I sit down to knock out operational matters. I keep a “follow up” folder for items that will need more time for thinking, praying, and processing. And I pull up that folder a few times a week during times that are calendared as “preparation time.”

A great system can help but a great system can never compensate for a lack of discipline or a lack of passion. If I lose passion and conviction for what the Lord has given me, no system will be able to overcome that.