Being productive is all about having a process that predictably achieves your goals. Whether studying for an exam, launching a product or building muscle you need to have a process that reliably and efficiently helps you to succeed.
Having a reliable process that predictably helps me to complete tasks quickly is the cornerstone of my productivity. I've used this process for scaling companies, generating passive income, staying fit and developing pretty much everything that I do and I honed it down over time.
The 5 phases: planning, research, prototype, implementation and reflection can be applied to literally anything and I'm going to break each down for you below.
The planning phase involves clearly understanding and outlining why the project, task or thing is needed and what the end result will look like. The key to the discovery stage is asking appropriate questions and understanding what good looks like.
Start From The End and Work Backwards
Starting from the end and working backwards is a powerful concept sometimes known as reverse planning. Whether you have come up with the idea or project yourself or this is a task or something that has been assigned to you think about what success looks like. With the end goal in mind you can then work backwards defining what you need to do to get there. In practical terms let's look at the key things you need to consider during the discovery phase.
The Planning Process
- The first step is to determine why this project, product or thing is necessary and what impact it will have. Thinking about how valuable something is will help you to prioritise it.
- Next, establish what good looks like i.e. what would be the perfect end result and how perfect does it need to be. In agile methodology this is known as the acceptance criteria and remember things don't always need to be perfect.
- Next, determine a deadline and who needs to be involved in the project. Is this something you can do yourself or does it need others? It's helpful to consider potential risks or obstacles and strategy to overcome these at this step.
- Next, create a schedule that breaks down the tasks required. This doesn't need to be perfect and can be created in excel, on sticky notes like a classic Kaban board or using productivity software such as Asana, Trello or Notion.
- Finally arrange a kick-off meeting with anyone else involved to get everyone on board and excited for the project. This should happen at the same time as the Research phase so that everyone at the kick-off meeting brings solutions and understanding to the project.
If you are studying for a test this might be planning your revision schedule, if you are building an app it might be setting yourself some development deadlines or if you are running a marathon it might be putting together a running plan and the date of the event.
The second phase of the process involves deep research into the subject matter. Research is best done at the end of the initial planning phase as this will provide context and a rough plan to focus your research and the plan can always be adjusted as needed.
As Austin Kleon says in his book Steal Like an Artist most things have been done before and it is likely that there is a wealth of information available on the internet you can iterate upon and which will save you time and get you started faster.
Research what others have done, search for relevant books, podcasts and training materials on the task or project you are undertaking.
You shouldn't replicate exactly what others have done, but use this research as a starting point on which you will iterate, add your own creativity and make it personal to your own skills. How can you improve and expand on these ideas, concepts and processes. Let's break down the Research phase into it's steps:
The Research Process
- Firstly having established what good looks like in the Planning Phase start your research by finding examples of how others have successfully tackled this project or task. Start by googling the problem you are trying to solve and look for practical examples, walk-through blogs and case studies are the most practically useful and bookmark these. Optimise for data and hard examples of things that have worked as numbers do not lie and think practically about the steps others took to succeed which you can apply to your own project.
- Next pick up books on the subject and listen to podcasts and immerse yourself in the problem. A good hack is to consider all books as reference tools and skip to the chapter or section that is pertinent to the issue you are trying to solve. If you are attacking a large project you might also want to consider courses or coaches which are great for things such as fitness or learning a musical instrument to accelerate your results.
- Next start to summarise the commonalities and your own ideas. This can be in a single page word document or a simple slide or note in Evernote or Notion. Try and be practical in what you write, this is especially important if the project involves others as they will need to understand your research.
- Finally present your research at the kick-off meeting set out in the planning phase to get some initial feedback from your peers, customers or end users such that the concept and idea can receive input and feedback which you might not have considered by yourself. Once your plan and research has been checked you're ready to move to the prototyping phase.
The prototype phase involves executing the plan and creating a prototype or first draft and then testing and implementing changes based on feedback. For those of you familiar with the book the Lean Startup this is the concept of the minimally viable product or MVP which focuses you on building a usable but early product which can receive feedback. This reduces development time and maximises improvement. The key to the prototyping phase is therefore speed and feedback following a Kaizen approach. Let's look at this in detail:
The Prototyping Process
- First focus on getting a draft or first attempt of the project completed as quickly as possible. Avoid perfectionism and instead challenge yourself to get it done as quickly as possible by the date you set yourself in the planning phase. Even if it is just an outline of an essay or going on that first run; get that first step done just like in my video on getting started with anything.
- Once you have the draft of the task or project get feedback on it. If you are using productivity software like Asana, Trello or Notion you can assign tasks within the project board where your team can type out their feedback. If you're doing something like learning an instrument you can start to get some feedback on your first attempts at a song or if you are running on your times or any issues you have encountered.
- Next quickly iterate improvements and fixes based on the feedback and continue in this iterative feedback cycle. In the planning phase you will have set deadlines and you will be able to tell if you are on or off track as you continue through this feedback cycle of improvement. On a side note this is where learning and feedback can become addictive as you see improvement and you move closer to your goals.
If you are working in a team and delegating elements of the project you will also need to review the quality of the work being completed at regular intervals and ensure that others are on track to hit the deadlines set. To support this schedule regular project catch-ups and checkins with team members and if you are working alone try and do an accountability checkin with yourself or a friend at the end of a week or deadlines period to keep you on track. As your project comes together you will then move into the fourth phase; delivery.
The penultimate phase of the any project is the implementation. The output at this point should look exactly how you defined it in the initial planning phase and if it doesn't something has been missed in the research or prototype stages so you may need to go back and repeat some of those steps.
Implementation focuses on execution and should include processes to ensure that the project is a continued success after it is finished. This might include marketing a new product, creating help manuals or simply winning people over with ongoing training to ensure a new concept is implemented. Pigheaded, determination goes a long way.
If you are using this productivity process for self-development think of the Implementation phase like a milestone. You have hit your initial goal and now you should reward yourself and plan the next stage in your growth, whether this is learning something or exercising, Implementation is about celebrating your success, integrating the development into your normal life and accepting a new challenge.
If you are using the process for sport or to study for an exam or to be successful at an interview, Implementation focuses on the fact that you have planned, researched and prepared and you should focus on executing and being as confident as possible on the day. Implementation isn't the last step in the process as after completing anything it is important to reflect and learn from the process and project in order to grow.
The final step in the process is all about analysing what you did and how you can improve things going forward.
In my opinion reflection is the most important step as it focuses on what you learned from the process and project rather than any specific outcome. It also helps you exponentially with any future similar goals. So let's look at the steps in the reflection phase.
The Reflection Process
- Start by thinking about what went well. We often focus on the negatives after we complete a task or project, especially something like a test or a sporting event but it is important to think of the positives too. You might want to write these down.
- Next consider what didn't work. This can be to do with the delivery itself or other elements of the process. For example did you get enough feedback and did you research things properly.
- Next, write down what you might do differently if you were to do the project again. This gets you thinking practically.
- Finally see if you can create a system of actions that would produce a more strategic, successful, and satisfying experience in the future based on your experience of this task or project. I do this routinely with almost everything and it allows me to learn and improve extremely quickly.
I apply this simple 5 step process of planning, research, prototype, delivery and reflection to literally everything I do and I hope you find it as helpful as I do.