Evaluating Bottlenecks to Create A Bullet-Proof Productivity System

Considering I have been re-evaluating my productivity system in the past few days, I figured this post would be a great way to record and hash out what I have discovered in my analysis. I have noticed that theoretically sound productivity systems can flounder and even fail when bottlenecks are not properly managed. A bottleneck is defined as: “The point at which an industry or economic system has to slow its growth because one or more of its components cannot keep up with demand.”

When this definition is carried over to fit today’s topic of discussion, a bottleneck is the point at which a productivity system has to slow its ability to save you time and effort because one or more of its components cannot keep up with the amount of information that needs to be processed through it.

In order to begin analyzing your productivity system for bottlenecks, you have to define the different parts of that system. Generally speaking, a productivity system is divided up into:

  1. Receiving / Capturing commitments, tasks, obligations, important information, etc.
  2. Delegating the above into the proper areas of your system (calendar, to-do list, waiting for list, project folder etc.)
  3. Working with each area of your system to carry out, accomplish, or keep tabs on all obligations and tasks.
  4. Reviewing and Cleaning Out outdated, irrelevant, or neglected obligations.

So with this in mind, let us begin.

Receiving / Capturing

Do you find yourself frequently losing papers, forgetting where you placed things, or discovering last minute that you forgot to record down a specific time and date of an event? If this sounds like you, then you need to work on your ability to flawlessly receive and capture information. The characteristics of a strong capture system include:

  • Having no more than 3 different capturing devices (e-mail, physical inbox, etc.)
  • A way to easily process out information once it has been delegated
  • A way to recall documents and papers that you may need to refer back to in case of error

I use a physical inbox for papers and my e-mail inbox for digital communications. Others may find the need for a third type of inbox, but the former two work well for me. Physical inboxes and e-mail are excellent at easily processing out information. For e-mail I simply archive the e-mail into my records (so it no longer remains in my inbox), and for physical papers I have my inbox stacked on top of my outbox. I simply move the papers into the outbox once I have processed them into my system and after the week is over, I file them into my filing cabinet if I know I may need them in the future. This brings me to the ability to recall documents in case of error. I simply go into my outbox or filing cabinet to refer to documents I feel I may have made an error in recording. For e-mail I simply search my archive (using Gmail) to pull up the original e-mail. Flawless.


In order for your delegating system to work smoothly, you must have clearly defined routes for incoming information out of your inboxes. Any lack of clarity or definition will lead to confusion and misplaced tasks. Generally, the four defined routes one will need are:

  • Immediately actionable with free time at the present moment
  • Immediately actionable without free time at the present moment
  • Actionable or occurring at a later date
  • Actionable by someone else (Delegate-able)

Items immediately actionable with free time at the present moment should be executed right away. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. If you don’t have enough time right now or feel it would be cutting it too close to your next appointment, delegate the task to “actionable without free time at the present moment.” In this case, you will add it to your to-do list/next actions list. That way, as soon as you have free time, you can finish the task. Paper-and-pencil lists, planners, rememberthemilk.com, and Google Tasks are all great ways to create such a list.

Tasks or events that are actionable or occur at a later date will require a calendar. A calendar can be used to trigger the adding of a task to your to-do list OR indicate where you need to be at what time (event trigger). For example, click on the screenshot thumbnail below to see event and task triggers on a calendar:

Producitiy System Calendar

Productivity System Calendar

Items actionable by someone else will require two lists. First, your to-do list should include informing the correct people about the task and what they are expected to do. Second, you should have a “Waiting For” list to keep track of who needs to do what by when. It is usually a good idea to date such lists. For example: 9/23/09 – Mike needs to give me the information about the eBay auction he listed for me by 10/05. Optionally, you can also add a task trigger on your calendar to make sure you stay on top of it. Continuing the above example, you could add a trigger on your calendar on 10/03 reminding you to ask Mike how the information he is supposed to send you is coming along.


With clearly defined and well-functioning lists, calendars, and inboxes, working with the system should be relatively easy. You just need to make sure that these systems are with you wherever you get work done. For example, being a college student, I can find myself doing work in the main campus library, the small library closest to my building, the computer room in the business school, my room, or a friends room. Because I do work in so many different places, I have placed all of my lists, calendars, and one of my inboxes online. I use Remember the Milk, Google Calendar, and Gmail so I have access to my system wherever I am. Some people prefer to keep everything on a planner and just take that with them everywhere. This works too.

My filing cabinet does not travel with me so I always need to be careful to take relevant papers with me, which requires a small degree of planning, but is by no means a bottleneck or a fatal flaw. Be sure to identify how your productivity system travels with you and meets the needs of your schedule and lifestyle. Not having your productivity system with you at times when you need it can be a huge bottleneck in your overall ability to get things done and be productive.

Reviewing and Cleaning Out

A productivity system needs a periodic tune-up.  This will include:

  • Making sure you haven’t missed or skipped over any commitments on your lists or calendar
  • Cleaning out unnecessary clutter in your inboxes and filing cabinet

This review will keep your system squeaky clean and more reliable.  I suggest reviewing at the end of every week and cleaning out once a month or every other month. This is a personal preference based on how well you filter information the first time around. Just be sure not to neglect it. Having to navigate through tons of clutter can be a significant bottleneck when you need to recall certain documents or e-mails.


And there you have it! By closely analyzing each part of your productivity system, you can see where any bottlenecks exist and quickly tune up that area to make it more efficient in processing your daily work flow.

‘Till next time.

Free Online Tools to Increase Productivity

Having finally settled into a routine that keeps me constantly prepared for this semester’s never ending torrent of schedule conflicts, I can finally begin blogging consistently again. These past few weeks have made me realize that without the tools I use to keep myself productive and on top of my commitments, I would never have the free time to commit to blogging, go to the gym regularly, or maintain my social life. This post will detail all of the tools I use to keep myself productive. They are all internet-based and free. So without further ado:

1)  Gmail

Without Gmail, my life would be a lot more complicated. Gmail has a lot of easy-to-use filtering, labeling, and searching features that makes storing and finding e-mails a breeze. While some people never archive and leave all e-mails in the inbox, I use my inbox as a holder for unfinished tasks and projects. When I complete the task or project, I simply archive the e-mail and search for it later if I need to bring it up again. By contrast, my school offers a web mail account that allows for 50mb of storage. At that rate, I would have to delete e-mails frequently. By archiving them with Gmail’s 7gb of space, I never have to delete e-mails. And thank goodness I don’t. I can recall at least 10 times this past month where I’ve had to dig out old e-mails from last year.

I also use a combination of filters and labels to take e-mails sent from my school’s advising office, my fraternity, and from Residential Life (my current employer) and siphon them out of my inbox and into folders where I can look at them at my convenience. If they contain and task or project that I can’t address immediately, I move the e-mail back into my inbox and look at it later.

Here is a screen shot of my filters and labels.

Gmail Filters

2) Google Calendar

I promise this post won’t become a continual declaration of my love for Google. I just happen to use Google Calendar because that is what I am accustomed to. Your calendar of choice will suffice just fine. A reliable calendar system must be portable and easy to use. Google Calendar syncs with my iPod Touch effortlessly whenever I have access to WiFi (thankfully, my whole campus has WiFi). Therefore, I have my calendar everywhere as long as I have my iPod Touch on hand or a computer with internet access. It is also makes scheduling recurring commitments a breeze. However, I have many productive friends who swear by a physical calendar/planner. If that’s your style, by all means use that instead.

3) Remember the Milk

Before Remember the Milk (RTM), I was using notepad documents on my desktop as a way to maintain my Next Actions list, Project list, Waiting For list, and my Someday/Maybe list.

Side note: For those of you who are wondering what those lists are, I highly recommend checking out Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. Even if you don’t agree with everything in the book, there are many great points and a lot of tips that can help just about anyone increase their productivity while worrying less about whether or not their system has captured all of their commitments and tasks.

Remember the Milk is simply an online-based to-do list that has a great layout and is easy to use. A big plus is being able to sort your tasks by priority and due date. I also like being able to log in on any computer and be able to check my to-do list.  The only downsides to RTM are: 1) You cannot order your lists (you’re stuck with alphabetical order) and 2) The iPhone/iPod Touch app requires you to purchase a premium account and the website is not compatible with Safari on these devices. If you hate paying for anything and are devoted to your iPhone, Google Tasks gets the job done and can be accessed for free on the iPhone (although it’s not as pretty as RTM).

And again, if you’re a paper and pen person when it comes to lists, then by all means keep doing that.

4) Joe’s Goals

I happened to stumble upon this website (not actually using StumbleUpon) during a brainstorming session in which I discovered a problem with my productivity system. My short, intermediate, and long-term goals were ending up on the same to-do list as my day-to-day tasks. For example, my goals of eating a big salad every day and doing the daily brain training exercises at Lumosity.com were ending up next to “File away Career Development Center activity sheets” and “Stop by academic advising office to change management concentration.” Although these goals were technically actions I wanted to take for that day, they had differing priorities, larger time commitments, and were ending up on the to-do list day after day in a never ending fashion. This constantly bloated up my to-do list and drained me of my sense of accomplishment. That’s where Joe’s Goals comes in.

Joe's Goals

As the screenshot above shows, Joe’s Goals allows you to easily track your goals on a daily basis. You assign a score (+1 or +2 or even -1 for negative habits you want to avoid) and at the end of the day you can see your score and which goals you accomplished that day. Joe’s Goals also comes with reporting features to view charts of your progress over longer periods of time. With Joe’s Goals, I no longer have bloat and clutter in my to-do list, yet I can easily track whether or not I am achieving my goals. If you would prefer to keep your goals off the internet, a well-made Excel sheet can accurately mimic the features of Joe’s Goals.

And there you have it! The free online tools I use to increase my productivity.