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Productive PM: 5 Practical Systems to Get More Done

In this post, we share five practical systems to help increase your productivity (and reduce stress) as a busy project manager. Get started:

Practical systems have made me a more productive Project Manager.

I used to worry about tools that helped with my workload, ironically. Did they diminish my role? Should I be thinking more on my feet?

I’ve come to understand that systems are the foundation of successful individuals. They squeeze more tasks into each day.

Systems also add more value to our roles. How?

By completing tasks quicker, we earn headspace. In my Project Management role, that means testing work, managing change, and checking the team are well.

But what systems do I describe in this post?

  • Inbox Zero
  • The Eisenhower Matrix (but only at busy times)
  • Eating the Frog
  • Servant Leadership
  • Keep It Simple, Stupid (KISS)

1. Inbox Zero

I’ve used Inbox Zero for a decade and can’t imagine life without it.

It’s a system designed by Merlin Mann to keep mailboxes empty.

Our lives revolve around our mailboxes, and it can be overwhelming when they’re not organized. Dealing with high volumes of email is an essential lesson for Project Managers to learn.

By following Inbox Zero, you review and control email, getting your inbox to zero, every time you check it.

But, here’s the key. You only do this once an hour (max) and for no longer than ten minutes at a time. Otherwise, the email overhead still exists.

So we turn off our email, no distractions, and stop multitasking.

Practical step

Getting started is the hardest.

Most email systems (like Gmail or Microsoft Outlook) have an Archive feature, hiding emails but still keeping them accessible. Book time to go through your mailbox and archive email one at a time (serial mailbox cloggers, you might need several sittings). 

As you do this, reply where required, add any actions to your to-do list, and keep going until you get to zero.

Once you do get down to zero (congratulations), you can pencil some recurring slots in your daily calendar to check email following the model described above. Stay strong; you can do this!


2. Eisenhower Matrix

The Eisenhower Matrix is a tool to prioritize lists, reduce stress, and increase productivity.

It was created by Dwight Eisenhower during WW2 to help with the endless tasks fighting the war.

The system focuses on two categories; urgency, and importance. By ranking tasks, you get four scenarios:

  • Urgent and Important = tasks you will do immediately.
  • Important, but not Urgent = tasks you will schedule for later.
  • Urgent, but not Important = tasks you delegate to someone.
  • Neither Urgent nor Important = tasks you cut.

If you’re a visual person, this will help.

The goal is to start working in the “Important, but not urgent” category. The top right box, if you clicked on the link above.

It stops last-minute requests or spending time on tasks that we should delegate.

Practical step

These days I only use the Eisenhower Matrix in an emergency. Why? 

My current role isn’t as chaotic as previous ones. A simple to-do list works fine for me most of the time.

However, when things get crazy, it’s good to be able to roll it out to manage the chaos.

The easiest way of doing this is either with a whiteboard or post-it notes. Draw out four squares and title the four categories.

Get everything up on the board and keep it updated. Get rid of every in the bottom right quadrant; it’s not needed. Find suitable candidates to delegate everything from the bottom left. 

Work through the top left list until you can eventually move to the Important, but not Urgent tasks (top right).


3. Eat the Frog

“Eat the Frog” is a system to improve focus and cut procrastination.

You need a daily to-do list to do this. The Eisenhower Matrix above counts.

A “frog” is the most important task for that day and the most likely to cause procrastination.

Eating the frog is a personal commitment to review your to-do first-thing each day and select the task you least want to do. Leaving it to fester drains energy.

To be productive, you need clarity. You need to know what you want to do before doing it.

Tackling your essential tasks first gives you energy and momentum for the rest of the day.

Practical step

You need a to-do list to start. If you don’t have one, note one down on a pad of paper. It doesn’t need to be fancy, just get down the essentials.

When you start tomorrow, review your list and highlight what you’re looking forward to least. Don’t start anything else until it’s done.

The harder step is getting the habit to stick. If you forgot for a day, don’t beat yourself up, just try again.


4. Servant Leadership

Servant Leadership has been an incredibly useful management tool for me. 

The basic concept is to remove your own self-interest at work and instead help others. How do you do this? 

Stop telling the team what to do (when they serve you). Instead, agree with them your common goals, and then help your teammates in meeting them.

There are some great Servant Leaders, who are:

  • Good humans
  • Listen more than they talk
  • Help people win
  • Influence
  • Manage change

Why is Servant Leadership in a productivity blog post? 

Micromanagement is the opposite approach to Servant Leadership and exhausting.

I’ve known several serial-micromanagers, and they look exhausted, like all the time. Trying to understand and control what everyone does is impossible.

There are hidden costs of micromanagement too; lower productivity, high employee turnover, low morale, little to no trust, and lack of teamwork.

Servant Leadership flips this. It empowers the team, reduces check-in points, and helps fix those hidden micromanagement costs.

Practical step

Start by setting clear goals with the team. What are you working towards, and how does each person fit into this?

Next, watch the team and find them doing something right. Once the team does, praise them. Focus on the benefits it brings to the broader team and how you feel about it.

When you notice the team not performing, let them know why you don’t think they’re delivering to your agreed goals. 

Ask them if they agree. You’ll be surprised by how often the team will, as you’re not there to punish them. Finally, when they agree, ask what you can do to help the individual get back on track. 


5. Keep It Simple, Stupid (KISS)

A mantra that we should all live by and unfortunately few do.

Keep It Simple, Stupid (KISS) is an approach to take the complexity out of life. Why? Far too often, people cram more into their life than is needed. For example:

  • A complicated design is hard to build, document, and often use. 
  • A complex process is going to cause people to make mistakes. 
  • A large amount of project administration can burn a manager out.

The reality is that the KISS principle is harder to apply in management. It’s so broad.

However, here are three examples of how we can use KISS in a project management role:

  • Delivering too much functionality in a project adds risk on the project timeline and budget. It also risks users getting a product they don’t need.
  • Making a project plan complex looks impressive but makes it confusing to follow and quickly becomes outdated. 
  • Having many people in a project team doesn’t make things go faster, but go slower. Smaller teams get more done.

Practical step

Take 15 minutes with a cup of coffee and reflect on your recent challenging days. Where is your time going? Jot them down.

Now think about the output of those tasks. What are you trying to achieve? 

There may be opportunities to start removing some of the fat from these tasks. For example, are status reports going into too much detail? Are meetings going on too long? 

There is a tipping point. When you do this, the value it returns adds up quickly and can make a genuine difference to your working day. 


Wrapping up

So there you have it, five systems I use to get more done.

They might work for you and they might not. Maybe you use them but in a totally different way. That’s fine. Everyone works differently, and you need to find the tools that work for you. 

However, I hope you find one or two practical ideas to apply to your own role, or at least feel inspired to think about how you do things.

Don’t forget to challenge the norm and keep pushing for higher efficiency in both your role and for the broader business you work in. It’s well worth the time doing so.


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