I spent well over a decade finding the perfect system to be the most productive I could be. This included reading a lot of books, such as the famous Getting things done (which, ironically, is the first book I never finished reading).
It also included optimising the area around me: making sure that my desk as well as my living space is ergonomic and I don’t get micro-frustrations from things taking that tiny bit too long to do (such as having to use 3 different remotes to be able to watch something on the TV, and only using 2 buttons on each - one of the worst user experiences across all of modern technology).
I tried TODO lists and time blocking. Assigning priorities to things and setting reminders to get something done at a later (yet very specific) time. Getting little rewards for completing tasks even.
Eventually, I realised that the system I use doesn’t matter if I keep putting the wrong things on my task list. All the resources out there tell you how to manage what you have to do, but how are you supposed to know whether things are worth doing in the first place?
The perfectionist trap
I’ve heard some people say that if you want to have it done right, you have to do it yourself, or if it’s not perfect it’s not worth doing. Neither of these approaches is particularly healthy, and both are a great way to become frustrated with life.
I’ve been there myself until I ended up having too much to do and didn’t have time to do everything perfectly. It turns out that nobody noticed the difference when things were not up to my standards anymore - people around me had more realistic expectations of what counts as done.
I ended up dropping my standards and so should you. We live in a world which is not perfect by its sheer nature - that’s precisely what drives evolution. Why go against it and try to be the best at everything?
Most of the time people will not appreciate your extra effort, above the usual 20% from the Pareto principle. Sure, sometimes it’s worth going the extra mile but it should be for the very few things of utmost importance.
Your chores don’t count as such.
The planning trap
When starting a new project or a new phase in life, the temptation is always to first figure out the best way to manage it. This is particularly true when you’re about to start doing something you’re not very familiar with, where you can’t even predict all the steps.
I’m sure we’ve all been there: we spent 2 days researching the perfect app to use for the upcoming trip rather than looking up where to go and what to do. And then we end up disappointed with the app anyway, because it’s tailored to the style of travelling of the person who made the app and not ours.
Or we create the perfect organisation system for all our craft supplies and tools, but in a month's time everything ends up a mess anyway, with half of the boxes overflowing and the other half empty. And at the end of the day you still can’t find the tool you need.
In the end, we end up frustrated and tired because we spent a lot of time - and often money - trying to figure out the best way to do something, but our solution is now standing in the way and we haven’t actually moved forward with the project itself.
That’s why trying to find the perfect system before you even get started is not a great strategy. You end up managing the project management, rather than the project itself, because you didn’t actually know what you needed.
For me, it turned out that just putting flight and hotel details in a calendar is enough for most trips - even more so because they tend to just automatically import themselves from my email. For more complex trips it might be worth having a simple spreadsheet.
But I don’t think it’s worth starting with a big template for a trip, which will either take you forever to understand or to adapt to your needs. This is particularly true if you haven’t travelled much and don’t actually know what you need.
And in case of tool storage - the easiest way is usually to get rid of the ones you don’t use. If you’re really honest with yourself, you know which ones are those: the ones you never reach for because you have another tool that does the job better.
This of course also applies to managing projects in your professional life. Nobody will appreciate your beautiful planning spreadsheet or a bug tracking system if you deliver your project a month late, because you had to spend a lot of time managing the managing system.
Once you know what you actually need, it gets easier to find a system that helps with managing your life, rather than being another task on your list.
The FOMO trap
Fear of missing out can be a real bummer if you want to have an enjoyable existence. It’s so enticing to take on another project at work to show your boss how capable you are, go to more parties and concerts, to all the networking events, or to every trip your friends throw your way… you get the idea - and probably know all too well what I’m talking about.
You obviously don’t want to miss out on an adventure where your friends will get closer together and you’ll end up left out of the group. Or you don’t want to pass on a work assignment because you really need that promotion.
But it’s impossible to do all the things you’re offered. Sure, a trip might be just a long weekend getaway, but if you go to a party a week before and a week after, you suddenly end up without any time to recharge for almost a month.
As Greg McKeown said in his famous book Essentialism If it isn’t a clear yes, then it’s a clear no. It’s worth remembering it next time you’re invited to something and your initial reaction is could do.
Filling your life with things that you could do doesn’t leave much room for things that you absolutely totally want to do. Both your time and your energy levels are limited so save them for the latter things.
Life’s too short to fill it with ok experiences.
Long story short
Just because we can do something doesn’t mean that we should. A lot of opportunities that come our way are not actually worth our time. And the things we have to do? They very rarely require us giving our 100% to be completed.
The best thing you can do with your life is let go of thinking how you should do certain things, or how your life will be perfect once you find this perfect way of managing it.
Your life will never be perfect, so do yourself a favour, free up some time and spend it on things that you actually enjoy.