I build my productivity system from my core values up, in four main layers: core values, areas/spheres of life (priorities, roles), goals and projects, and tasks (habits and events). This is written as a guide to building such a system.
As mentioned, we start with values.
- Values First. A crucial point commonly overlooked in many productivity systems is the question not of how to get your things done but why. Out of anything in the world that you could do, why these things, and what will motivate you to get them done? How do you determine what earns a place in your system and your life? This is why we begin this system with values.
- Make Your Values List. Take a piece of paper, a word processor document, a typewriter, a whiteboard—any tool that makes you happy—and start listing your values. At this stage, write down everything that comes to mind. We’ll edit later. For now, just brain dump. What’s important to you at your core? My list includes things like creativity and innovation, constant growth and self improvement, and being a part of my community.
- Narrow It Down/Grouping. Okay, now you can start filtering yourself. Eliminate things from the list that you don’t really care about that much. A lot of values out there sound good—are good—but that doesn’t mean they are your personal mission. Pick your battles, pick your values. You might do a little more tweaking of this list in future steps. Also, for ease of reference, start grouping like values, similar keywords, and synonyms together. Your bullet points don’t need to be catchy; they just need to make sense to you.
- Tweak/But Watch It. Over time, people change. Values change. It’s okay to tweak this list now and then. But if you’re constantly overhauling all of your values, you need to think about what truly matters to you. Before adding things, consider: has this mattered to you for a long time? Do you think it will matter to you for a long time to come? Is it a consistent part of who you are and what you do, not just something generally good? Would it spring to mind if you asked someone close to you what they see you value?
Areas of Life
From values, we go to areas of life.
- Spheres/Roles/Priorities List. Via roughly the same process as above (brain dump, narrow it down/grouping), make a list of your areas of life. These are areas/spheres of your world, roles, priorities. They should be pretty general and high level, but should be actionable. Some of mine include writing, being a housewife, being an alternative sexuality educator, running Las Vegas TNG, being a butler school student, etc.
- Must Serve A Value. Each of your spheres must serve at least one of your core values. Otherwise, it probably doesn’t deserve a place on the list. It may serve more than one value, but if a sphere serves multiple values in different ways, consider if it might be better split into multiple spheres. (For example, separating “generating income” to keep your projects going, and your actual passion for your field, if those things could be separated in your ideal world.)
- Can’t Contradict A Value. None of your spheres should contradict any of your values. If you value stability, settling down, homesteading, starting a family, being close to relatives, etc., then one of your spheres of life probably shouldn’t be globetrotting. You don’t want to contradict yourself. Of course you can take a vacation now and then, but that might be better put under self care or something technically left out of the system.
- Most Values Should Be Represented. Most of your values should be represented in your spheres. Some may not be—they may be an approach to a sphere. But most of them should probably be represented in actionable ways—otherwise, do they really matter to your life in particular? This can vary between people. For a business owner, “honesty and truth” as a value may mean transparency with your customers and employees as an approach. But if you work or volunteer with a social justice organization, this may map directly to a sphere of life.
- Values List For Each Sphere (Optional). It may make sense to reframe your values in terms of a sphere, to clarify how that sphere serves your values. For example, I have a values list for writing as a sphere. Any writing serves my core value of creativity, but for it to serve other values, it needs other qualities—ones I list in my writing values list. For example, a commitment to diverse casts of characters, exploring certain themes in fiction/writing education based nonfiction (learning and growth), etc.
- One Sphere: You. One sphere should be you. You cannot accomplish anything in any of your other spheres without taking care of yourself. One sphere should be a commitment to your physical and mental health, and pieces of life that enable other spheres to happen, like your home environment and finances.
From spheres, we go to goals and projects.
- Clarify Projects/Goals. These are like your sub-spheres. Start clarifying goals and projects you have within the above spheres.
- Must Fit Into A Sphere. Each goal or project must fit into one of the spheres above. This system builds upon itself—values, then areas of life, then goals/projects.
- Sphere Might Not Have Projects. Some spheres may be more of a maintenance game. For example, my health and housewife duties largely involve doing a lot of the same small tasks over and over again, rather than having projects and goals. Some spheres may not have a project or goal—or might not right now. Don’t worry about it. We can get back to those in the next step. At this stage, you might also realize some “projects” are better off as spheres, because they’re a maintenance game rather than something that ever gets completed, or because they have more projects within them. Make adjustments as necessary.
- Don’t Contradict A Value. This shouldn’t be an issue at this point, but it’s worth triple checking that no project contradicts any values you’ve listed. You might confirm if it does serve a value directly—especially if it’s in a sphere you made a sub-list of values for. It may or may not, and that’s okay—but most probably should.
- SMART Goals. Not everything at this level needs to be a SMART goal. If not, it’s probably a project—like a sub-sphere. But goals should be SMART. What does that mean? SMART goals isn’t my original idea, but it’s something I subscribe to. S stands for specific. Your goal must be specific, so you can know when it has been reached and what it is. M stands for measurable. There must be some clear metric—maybe a number—that means a goal has been reached. A stands for achievable. If the goal isn’t realistic, it’s not going to work. R stands for relevant—why this goal? By starting with values, this should already be taken care of. T stands for time bound—there must be a deadline. Otherwise, goals can sit around forever, never to be reached or reevaluated.
Now we get into that list we really look at day to day.
- Habits and Events. I try to make every task into one of two things: a habit (recurring task) or an event (calendar item). Now, it’s not perfect—sometimes, things just come up. But I try to keep everything possible as a habit or an event. This may require some adjusting. For example, a daily habit may be taking time to work on a specific project, and that project may have information systems that tell you what to work on, with once off tasks that actually get checked off forever. I like the habit system even for things like that because I can more clearly see what a habit adds up to in the long run than a list of small tasks.
- Backwards from Sphere or Goal/Project. To create those habits and events, we work backwards from spheres, or from goals and projects.
- Every Task/Event Must Serve Project/Goal or Sphere. This means that every task/event/habit must come from a project/goal or a sphere directly. Otherwise, what is it really doing here? Let go of the nonessential.
- Every Goal/Project and Sphere Gets Done (Via Sticking To Recurring Task List/Schedule). If you stick to your habits and events, every sphere should be seen to, every goal/project completed, automatically. You should not need to frequently revisit goals/projects or higher levels directly, thinking vaguely. Eye on the habits/events, and those things should handle themselves. Break this down into pieces as small as make sense. You want some flexibility, but you also don’t want a huge task set on a monthly basis that you might find yourself staring down on the last day of the month.
- Can’t Contradict A Value. Quadruple check: you’re not contradicting your own values, right?
- Assigning to Times. Events probably get assigned to at least a specific day, and probably a specific time, by nature, in whatever calendar system works for you. Your habits should get tied to a frequency. My list has daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, annual, so on. Within those, you may get more specific if it helps. All of my daily tasks are grouped and tied to times, to make them easy to track and remind myself of, instead of keeping track of tons of habits and setting tons of alarms per day. All of my weekly tasks are assigned to a day of the week. Some monthly tasks get tied to a day of the month—like the first or last—because it makes sense, while others simply sit on the “monthly” list to get done when it most makes sense. That doesn’t exactly need to be your system—the point is, assign things more specifically where it makes sense or keeps you on track. But otherwise, give yourself the flexibility you need.
- Alarms/Reminders. Each day, creating a task list should now be simple. Every night, I check my recurring task list and my calendar to generate my list for the next day, which I create via setting alarms. Things that actually are time bound get alarms set first, while others get alarms set semi arbitrarily, where they fit, to remind me to do them when I have the appropriate amount of time. You might like a physical list, a reminder app, or some other way of doing this.
And that’s pretty much it for the system itself. Just wanted to share this as a guide and reference to my system.