I’m often asked about the tools that I use to be more productive. Whether it’s a to-do list app (of which I’ve tried many), a notetaking or writing app, (of which I’ve tried several), or an email app (of which I’ve tried several to many), tools are frequently the focus when I’m asked about boosting levels of productivity.
But here’s the thing: the tools you use are only as good as the way you use them.
Have you ever tried to hammer a nail with the handle of a screwdriver? Sometimes it works, but more often it doesn’t. Have you ever bought the best set of golf clubs you could afford and still found yourself slicing the ball more often than not? Perhaps you should have bought less expensive clubs and worked on your swing first.
Another example is the wrench, which is a curious and versatile tool.
It can be used to loosen or tighten things, which is important for making adjustments. Whenever you think of cranking widgets (which is a common productivity term) the tool being used for said cranking is – you guessed it – a wrench.
There are a lot of different types of wrenches, and some do certain jobs better than others. You can have a ton of wrenches in your toolbox, and know that one will do one job better than another – but in a pinch you’ll likely have another wrench than can do the trick as well.
That said, some wrenches simply won’t work in certain situations. That’s why it’s important to wave a wide variety of them at your disposal. Perhaps that’s why in the UK, wrenches are commonly referred to as spanners. They tend to span different use cases, but some span more than others.
When someone says that they had “a wrench thrown into things”, it often means that the plans had to be adjusted as a result. Wrenches help with adjustments, and sometimes the wrench being thrown in takes you away from the wrong thing and closer to the right thing — rather than the other way around.
So as you can see, tools can help but they aren’t going to be the answer unless you learn how to use them well. The best way you can start using tools in a way that supports and enhances your system is to make them ACT for you.
What does ACT stand for? These three letters are the building blocks of a better productivity framework.
When a task, idea, or thought comes to mind, you need to become aware of it at that time. That awareness serves you because it sends a signal to your brain saying “This is something that I need, ought, or want to deal with.”
But the problem is that we stop there. We become aware and file it away in our minds, which is not the ideal storage facility. Awareness is something that will always serve us, but it’s what we do with it afterward that creates action. That’s when you need to take the next step…
This is a habit that you need to build if you’re going to have a better productivity system. No matter how big or small, when you become aware of something, you need to get it out of your head and put somewhere you can find it again with as little friction as possible.
I’ve said in some of the talks I’ve given that you should “capture everything and regret nothing.” I firmly stand behind this, because by capturing everything (in a place you’ll trust – I’ll get to that in a moment) removes doubt from the equation. There’s no sense of trying to remember what was and wasn’t captured, because you have captured everything. You want as little as possible taking up the space in your mind, because your mind was meant to be a factory, not a warehouse. To make this work you need to find a better replacement for your brain because you’ve got it in your head that it’s the best place for it. You’ve learned to trust your brain for remembering tasks, which is misplaced. You need to find another place that you’ll trust even more.
In order for a tool to work for you, you need to trust it. That means using it consistently so you build that relationship with it. It may not be the most attractive thing to do – after all, the pull of shiny new objects in email or elsewhere is often more alluring – but if you stick with the tool you’ve chosen and get results by doing so, then you begin to trust it more. Think of it as an extension of your mind.
Whatever tool you use – especially if it is a to-do list app – needs to be a place for the things you’ve become aware of and captured. Once you have taken these first two steps, then you can move forward. You can let things incubate there. You can reflect upon them there.
Here’s a simple example of how I apply the ACT concept. Every night, before I leave my study, I write My 3 Absolutes on paper. (Which demonstrates awareness and capture.) These are the three things that I absolutely must do tomorrow. Then I place the page on top of my computer. The next morning I know I will see the three things I absolutely must accomplish. As I’ve used this tool consistently over time, I’ve learned to trust it. However, if you have a tool that you don’t trust (by using it consistently) then it won’t work for you.
Now that I’ve written about how to implement ACT I want to make sure that you find ways to “act” upon it starting today. So here’s what I’d like you to do:
- Think about all the things you need and want to do. Become aware of them – the big and the small things.
- Capture those things down in one place. It could be a notebook, a to-do list app, or anything in between.
- Start using that one place as the origin for all of your tasks starting right now. Keep at it, day in and day out.
That’s the extent of the exercise. Get aware, capture, and trust that you’re going to move these needs and wants forward because of the better (and simple) productivity system that you’ve put in place.
Do this exercise again and again, day in and day out, and you'll be ACT-ing in the best interests of your productivity and your future self.