It seems to me that most of our approaches to productivity tend to orient our focus at the wrong level. We end up focusing on the runway level — next actions — and the 10,000 foot level — projects. This makes it hard to prioritize across areas of your life.
For example, if you come into work in the morning and say to yourself “what projects to I have going on?,” you might make some good progress that day. However, your thinking is necessarily narrow — it is focused on what projects already exist, and the focus is to get that loop closed when there might be broader things that are more deserving of your attention that day. Further, these broader things may not be anything captured on another existing list, like a next action list, because in a very real sense it is actually impossible to make any next action list “complete” (perhaps more on that later).
So how do you identify those broader things? I think by going to the 20,000 foot level, which is areas of responsibility. So instead of saying to yourself “what projects do I have on my plate” or “what actions do I have on my plate,” you instead say “what are my main responsibilities? Now, what are the most important things I can do today to advance the responsibilities that most need to be advanced at this time?”
In this way, you aren’t relying on any lists to ultimately show you what to do. Rather, you are relying on reflection. You might refer to your lists to make sure you are considering everything, but by putting the focus on reflecting on “what do I need to do now,” you allow new ideas to arise that are more in tune with current priorities. That is, you can adapt better, focusing on what is important now rather than on what was important two weeks ago, but you couldn’t do then so you put it on a list.
This is how I operated in college, without the assistance of any planning system (or even calendar–ironic, I know!). Every few days, I would simply say to myself “what is coming up in each of my classes?” Then I would identify what was most important, and get it done. The advantage there was that I had a pre-existing syllabus for each class; in the world of ordinary life, you are having to create much of your “syllabus” for your life as you go.
The irony is that, when a planning system inclines you to think mostly from the 10,000 foot level and runway, it can lead to lack of focus because there is simply so much to consider, with the result that you are worse off than not having any planning system at all.
But used right, a productivity system puts you way ahead. If, instead of using it to substitute for thinking (that is, instead of simply saying “what’s on my project lists and action lists; OK, I think I’ll do this), you use it as a support to keep some of the heavy lifting of remembering important ongoing things off your mind, it can be helpful. Then, what you do is operate from a stance of reflection at the 20,000 foot level of responsibilities, and refer to the lists to help fill out your options on what each area might needs, rather than relying on the lists as an exhaustive catalog of all your options.