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Productivity is not everything but in the long run it is almost everything

Paul Kruger

In the long run your success at work will be determined by your productivity. Productive people make more stuff, sell more things, impress more people and do better. So how do you become more productive?

This series of articles, sponsored by ElephantPM (my consultancy) answers that question. My target audience is 17 – 25 year olds who want to do better. The techniques I will explain will work for any age person – indeed I did not learn all of them until I was in my late thirties but older people may need to unlearn bad habits.

The first step to improving your productivity is not to forget the tasks you have to do. This is easy to say but not to do. Most people’s short-term memory is about 30 seconds and can only hold about 5 things. Having “a poor memory” is the norm.

I have a perfect memory and never forget a task – how do I achieve this? I  simply write it down in a book. Next time you are in a meeting look at who is making notes. I bet it is the people who are known as high performers.

Action Book

Action Book

My Action Book is simply an A4 writing book with hard covers. I prefer A4 because my early career was spent as a physicist and I used a lab book every day.

For short-sighted people with big writing and a love of Mind-Maps, A4 is great but many people prefer A5 because it is more portable.

A benefit of hardback books is that you can rest them on your lap to make notes when you are travelling.

23rd August 2015

23rd August 2015

It is very simple to update your Action Book. You start every day by writing the date. In this page from 23rd August 2015 I use five sorts of indicators which I have circled in orange.

Note (bullet point)


I make notes of key facts that I might forget.

Action (tick-box)


The most common indicator is the tick-box for an Action that I have to do. It is very important to understand that it is something that I have to do, not someone else.

Waiting for (tick-box with “wf” next to it)

waiting-forThis indicator is what separates the ElephantPM Action Book from your mother’s shopping list. It shows what tasks you are waiting for other people to perform.

In this case I am waiting-for my accountant to phone back. Examples of other waiting-fors in my Action book are,

▢ wf Simon to review my PowerPoint Slides

▢ wf Nina to order the new laptops

▢ wf Phil to pay me the Underwater Hockey subs

It is capturing waiting-fors that make you an effective team member and later an effective team-leader.  When I review my waiting-fors I am always thinking “do I need to chase X for that bit of work if I am to complete my own work on time?”

Cancelled Action (tick-box with a line through it)


Sometimes you record an Action but then you don’t need to do it anymore. Simply put a line though it.

Done Action (tick-box with a tick in it)


When you have “Done” a bit of work you tick it. Here “done means done“;  you have sent the presentation to marketing, you have handed in that essay, you have bought that kettle etc. It certainly never means 98% finished.

Experienced project managers will tell you that there is no such thing as 98% finished. Only work that is “done” and work that is “not done”. The reason for this is that “S**t happens”; the girl in marketing is on leave, the computer crashes when you try to send your essay in, the kettle is out of stock. Always allow time for the unexpected.

Remember to review your actions several times a day

We are using our Action Book to remember actions for us but it won’t work if we don’t review it regularly. I review my Action Book every morning and several times a day. This is not difficult because I always have it open on the desk next to me so I can capture new actions as they arise. Sometimes you will have a quiet period at work and then it is very satisfying to find and complete a few small tasks.

Shouldn’t a computer be involved?

Computers are too slow, too difficult, the batteries die and they and don’t work when you are tired. At some point they crash and you lose all your data.

It takes a couple of seconds to make a note in your Action Book, you can turn the pages to see what you wrote last week and paper lasts for thousands of years.

I used to never be able to find a pen so I bought a box of 12 from Amazon so there is always one to hand.

Is the system too simple?

At first sight this system is too simple, there are lots of adornments that could be added such as,

  •  Due Dates (not required for every action but do add “Deadlines” when necessary)
  • Category (home, work, church, sport)
  • Priority

The problem with complex systems is that people give up using them very quickly. If your action is “Buy milk” you don’t want to have to write “Buy milk, 2015-10-10 17:30, Home, Priority 2”.

This system is simple but it works for the target audience (17 – 25) year olds and it forms the foundation on which we can build more sophisticated information management techniques as the complexity of our work increases.

Next Steps

If this article has spurred you to start an Action Book feel free to ask questions or share your experiences in the comments section.

Next Post

After you have used your Action Book for a week you will benefit from some handy hints. Look out for Part 2 next week – “The Action Book revisited”.

Acknowledgement to GTD(tm)

I would like to acknowledge David Allan the author of “Getting Things Done” who has had a profound influence on my working practices. If you would like to learn more about personal productivity techniques there is no better place to start.