The 12 Best Productivity Systems to Try

By Bill Peatman | Updated: 23 Dec, 2021

There are so many factors that come together with a seemingly laser focus on killing your productivity. 

In the 2024 Executive Productivity Report, 52% of survey respondents reported stress as their top productivity blocker, 43% reported meetings, and 43% reported administrative tasks. No matter the cause, productivity blockers affect you every day. How are you beating them?

One way to get there is by adopting a productivity system.

Productivity systems are methodologies that aim to help you get more done in less time. They don't do the work for you, but productivity systems can help you organize and prioritize your tasks and make it easier to make progress. Here are some of the popular productivity systems and how they work.

Autofocus Productivity System

Mark Forster developed the Autofocus productivity system as a reaction against the most common time management advice—prioritizing tasks based on one's opinion of their importance. Forster found personal prioritization unhelpful at best and harmful at worst.

Humans tend to focus on what they perceive to be most threatening, and the Autofocus system balances what is most threatening with what is most important.

This is an old-school notebook productivity system that consists of three simple steps:

  • Start with a sheet of lined notebook paper and list everything you must do. As new tasks come to mind, add them to the list and review them without acting.
  • Reread the list slowly until a task stands out to you. Work on that task if you "feel like doing so." When you stop, whether you are finished with the item or not, cross it off the list (re-enter work that you did not complete at the end of the list).
  • Repeat this process of slowly reading the list and tackling tasks as they stand out to you or until none of them stand out to you.

Bullet Journal Productivity System 

We all know about the bullet list as a method of breaking down complex ideas into a series of short statements.

The Bullet Journal Productivity System organizes work using a set of logs. It helps you be more mindful of your daily tasks, prioritize the right things, and reflect on your emotions.

Unlike other planners, this notebook productivity system is designed for you to fully customize based on your unique goals. However, there are some key components every bullet journal must have:

  • An Index: The Index is the backbone of the Bullet Journal. It is how you organize everything you add to it.
  • Future log: This is where you list your long-term projects and milestones six to 12 months out.
  • Monthly log: For each month, you list every day and day of the week and add your tasks for each day.
  • Daily log: List your to-dos by task, event, and notes for the day.
  • Collections: These lists you use to track repeated tasks or times you monitor and organize by content types, such as shopping lists and fitness activities.

At the end of each month, review your daily logs and mark the completed items.

Review the unfinished tasks and ask yourself, "Is this still worth my time?" If so, move it to the next monthly log.

For tasks due in the coming months, put them in the monthly log. You create a page number in your journal and add the item and the page number to the index.

Don't Break the Chain Productivity System

The Don't Break the Chain productivity system comes from comedian Jerry Seinfeld. At the beginning of each year, Seinfeld would take a large calendar and put a big red X over every day that he spent time writing. It is that simple. This system works well for work that has the same output or goal every day.

Here is how the system works:

  • Get a calendar.
  • Decide on your daily goal.
  • Mark a big red X over every day you accomplish your goal.

As you progress, you will see a chain of Xs across the calendar, and you will grow motivated to avoid breaking the chain.

Eat The Frog Productivity System 

The next productivity system is kind of the opposite of the Autofocus system.

And it has the most creative name: Eat That Frog.

The title comes from a quote by Mark Twain: "Eat a live frog first thing in the morning, and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day." The point is that you should start your day by tackling the most difficult or daunting task on your list. Once you get that out of the way, the rest of the day will be easy, and you will feel so much better.

What do you do if you have two "frogs" on your list? Eat them both.

The Eisenhower Matrix Productivity System 

The Eisenhower Matrix productivity system stems from a famous quote by former U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower: "I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent."

Here is how it works. You use a four-quadrant grid to rank tasks/decisions based on two key characteristics:

  • The importance of the work to the overall success of the mission.
  • The urgency of the job.

Urgent and important

Do it first 

Important but not urgent

Do it later

Not important or urgent 

Do not do it

Urgent but not important

Delegate it


Place your tasks in the quadrants and tackle them as follows:

  • Important/Urgent quadrant: you do these tasks first.
  • Important/Not Urgent quadrant tasks: schedule time to do these later.
  • Urgent/Not Important quadrant tasks: delegate these tasks to someone else.
  • Unimportant/Not Urgent quadrant tasks: drop these time-wasters and distractions.

The beauty of the matrix is that it applies to any role in any business. For busy executives, it can be an invaluable tool for remaining focused on what matters most.

Similar system: The Franklin Covey productivity system also uses the Eisenhower Matrix.

Iceberg Productivity System 

Do you spend hours searching your email inbox, trash, and sent folders for messages you did not save that contains information you now need? Motivational speaker Ramit Sethi of I Will Teach You to Be Rich created the Iceberg productivity system for just this kind of situation. It is practical and straightforward. You set up email folders for categorizing and storing information you find valuable but do not plan to use immediately. Examples Sethi provides include:

  • Create folders named after cities with emails from people you might want when traveling there. Then, on your way, you could review the folder for that destination and reach out to contacts.
  • Create folders for skills you might need in the future, such as "How to create a great webinar," because you might want to do that later in the year.
  • Create folders where you can store insights about topics you plan to write about in the future, such as "how to understand cryptocurrency." 

The goal is to take a few seconds today to save something that may otherwise take you hours to find when you need it. If the item did not come in the form of an email, you can paste a link in a blank email, send it to yourself, and store it accordingly. Your inbox becomes the tip of the iceberg, where you see one-third of your information repository. The rest is hidden from view but there when you need it.

Ivy Lee Productivity System 

One of the most trusted productivity systems is more than 100 years old. In 1918, Charles W. Schwab (no relation to the Charles Schwab of the financial world), CEO of Bethlehem Steel, was desperate to boost organizational productivity, so the story goes. He hired a business consultant named Ivy Lee to help. Lee asked for 15 minutes with each of Bethlehem Steel's executives. In those 15 minutes, he told the executives to do the following every day:

  • Write down the six most important things you must do tomorrow at the end of the day.
  • Prioritize the list in order of importance.
  • The following day, begin with the first task on the list.
  • Work on the first project until finished, then move on to the next task.
  • Continue until every project on the list is complete.
  • Add any unfinished tasks to the top of the list for the next day.

Similar systems: To-do lists.

The Getting Things Done Productivity System 

Getting Things Done (GTD) by David Allen is one of the most popular productivity systems. Unlike structured systems like the Ivy Lee system, GTD features a flexible, five-step framework:

  • Capture - Take notes on all your thoughts. Notes clear your mind and prevent you from forgetting key ideas.
  • Clarify - Decide if your thoughts are actionable and, if they are, determine how urgent they are.
  • Organize - Create reminders for all your action items.
  • Reflect - Review your to-do lists frequently to ensure you are staying on track.
  • Engage - Do the work that is on your list in the most efficient way possible.

GTD begins with the premise that our productivity is related to our ability to relax. When our minds are clear and our thoughts organized, we achieve effective productivity and unleash our creative potential.

The Kanban Productivity System 

Kanban, which means "card" in Japanese, was invented at Toyota to streamline manufacturing. The system also applies to personal productivity. Kanban is a column-based project management system that conveniently keeps tasks and projects on track. You create three columns on a spreadsheet (or whiteboard):

  • To do.
  • In progress.
  • Done.

Then, you create physical or virtual cards or sticky notes for your tasks and place them in the appropriate columns. Kanban works well for projects with multiple subtasks or for projects where teammates collaborate and the team needs visibility into the status of tasks. Applications like Asana, Monday, and Trello are online versions of the Kanban productivity system.

Similar systems: Agile, Kaizen.

Related: 34 Powerful Productivity Software Tools

The Pomodoro Productivity System

The Pomodoro productivity system blocks off time in your schedule in increments of 25 minutes. Each 25-minute block is called a Pomodoro. Here is how it works:

  • Decide on the task to be done.
  • Set a timer for 25 minutes.
  • Work on the task.
  • End work when the timer rings and take a short break (typically 5–10 minutes).
  • If you have fewer than three Pomodoros, go back to Step two and repeat until you go through all three Pomodoros.
  • After four Pomodoros take an extended break (traditionally 20 to 30 minutes). After the long break, return to step 2.

Similar system: Timeboxing.

The Single Tasking Productivity System

Multitasking is a proven productivity killer. Numerous studies show that it has adverse effects, including: 

  • Increasing your stress levels.
  • Decreasing productivity by as much as 40 percent.
  • Reducing your cognitive abilities.

Yet 92% of knowledge workers multitask during meetings. The problem with multitasking is that switching between tasks and applications wastes time and attention. It takes about 20 minutes to refocus. With Single-Tasking, you focus on only one thing at a time. Here is how to do it: 

  • Use only one browser tab or application at a time.
  • Use pomodoro-like time bocks to force yourself to focus.
  • Turn off alerts and notifications from devices and applications.
  • Set your status to "do not disturb" on your instant messaging app.
  • Block off your calendar to avoid getting called into meetings.

Similar system: Timeboxing.

The Zen to Done Productivity System 

Zen to Done (ZTD) is more about changing habits to improve productivity and effectiveness. It was created by Leo Babauta of Zen Habits to help you develop habits one by one, step by step, and create a workflow management system. ZTD teaches you how to take a simple approach to improving your productivity by encouraging you to focus on forming one habit at a time.

Here are the steps in the ZTD productivity system:

  • Collect: Get ideas and to-dos out of your brain and onto a list.
  • Process: Review your list daily and decide how to act on each item.
  • Plan: Pick a few high-priority items to accomplish each week and every day.
  • Do: Schedule time to complete your selected to-dos without interruptions.

Related: Health Habits to Increase Productivity in the Workplace

How to Pick a Productivity System

The million-dollar question is, how do you choose a productivity system that will work for you? A lot depends on your work style. For example:

  • Eat The Frog is an excellent choice for procrastinators.
  • Bullet Journal works for people who like lists and are detail-oriented.
  • Autofocus works well for big-picture thinkers.
  • Pomodoro is great for people who need structure to focus their time.
  • ZTD is a good fit if you want to change your habits while improving your productivity.
  • If you struggle with multitasking, try single-tasking.
  • Use Ivy Lee if you have trouble setting priorities.
  • If you want to keep a team on track, use Kanban.

The bottom line is that you will not know if a productivity system works for you until you try it. Getting started is often the most challenging part of adopting a productivity system.

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