Not realizing your potential? This ‘one-two punch’ will boost your productivity to new heights

Raymond is bright, but not working up to his potential.

I don’t know if elementary school teachers are writing comments like that on report cards any more; they might be politically incorrect in today’s “self-esteem” culture. However, I’m sure parents – and probably a majority of parents – are still telling their kids something similar.

Here’s a factoid you may not know: I hit retirement age this year. I’ve been pretty successful at everything I’ve tried, but I’ll be completely honest with you, as I review my life, I have to agree with my elementary school teachers: I haven’t been working up to my potential.

It’s not for want of trying. Over the years I’ve used Day Timers, to-do lists, reminders scrawled on the palm of my hand, white boards, sticky notes, and more recently, habit creation apps…with which my failure is chronicled here.

So, it’s a bit ironic that at retirement age I finally hit on a simple system that has boosted my productivity to entirely new levels. It basically involves two things:

  • Leveraging one piece of software I’ve been using off and on for quite some time, and
  • Taking the advice of others that I’ve known about for years, but have always ignored.

Here are the general details: I have Trello set up in a special way that keeps me moving forward and I’ve started to map out what I need to do tomorrow the evening before.

My approach to Trello

Trello is usually considered project management software. It has a great free version and also integrates with other software. I use it more to schedule my time and I don’t really take advantage of the integrations very much.

As I detail my use of Trello, if you keep my list of failed productivity attempts in mind, you’ll see how Trello captures the best features of several. Here’s what I mean:

  • I set up my Trello board as a work week. I have created columns for Monday through Friday plus a column for the weekend. I also have an “On Deck” column and a “Recurring” column. This setup, in a way, serves the purpose of the calendar in a Day Timer.
  • Within each column are “notes” that indicate the tasks I need to accomplish. They can be moved around, duplicated, edited, and be integrated with other software. In this way, they are like super-charged sticky notes.
  • I have my entire work week, along with extra information, in front of me at all times. This is how Trello is like a white board.

When I get a new job or project, I immediately create a new card for it. I can slot it into a day or put it “On Deck” if it looks like I already have too much to do during the week.

Notice that I’ve been using Trello for quite a while, but only recently did I discover how it can be used to really boost my productivity. Its power was revealed when I combined it with planning tomorrow the night before.

My hardware helper

There’s one more thing that has been important for me in this process. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I recently commandeered an iPad my wife wasn’t using. After I deleted her apps and started to install my own, I decided to download the Trello app. When I did that, I realized that I as I was crawling into bed at night, I could grab the iPad, fire up Trello, and do some planning. I know that I could have done the same thing with my laptop, but for some reason, the convenience of the iPad is what made this system doable for me.

For years I have read that the most productive people map out what they need to do on any given day the night before. I’ve always thought, “What’s the big deal? I know what to do or I can figure it out in the morning!”

Getting the right frame of mind

My attitude was completely wrong. If you don’t start the day with a good framework that defines how your day needs to “come together,” you waste a lot of time and tragically, you waste this time without knowing you’re wasting time. It’s an insidious situation; you’re not working to your potential, but you think you are!

Here’s an illustration: Imagine you’re setting out on a road trip, but you drive the first few hours without a map – you’re merely navigating by “feel.” Then, when you decide you need to be pointed more accurately in the right direction, you stop, think about it, find your bearings, and then set off again.

Without preplanning your day, you will get things done…you’ll even meet deadlines. Here’s the catch: You won’t get as much done and therefore you’ll never get a sense for how much you could be accomplishing or how many more jobs you could be contracting for.

Take a running start

Let me give you another element that I think is important for our human nature. When you wake up in the morning with a plan you set for yourself the night before, you’re “preprogrammed” to dig into it and get it done. When you glance at the Trello board you edited the night before, the process closes a loop and tells you that you have a “preapproved” flight plan. I also think that essentially having “written marching orders” (rather than mere mental notes) in front of you gives your brain a heightened sense of the exigency of accomplishing the tasks at hand.

It clears the psychological road ahead.

I include personal items on my list, such as visits to the gym. I’m also hoping to include some menu planning soon; I don’t know how many times I’ve found myself at 5 p.m. wondering, “Do we have anything to eat?” What a waste of time, and it leads to poor eating habits.

I suspect that many reading this short article will have seen some of this advice before and ignored it just as I did for many years. Let me encourage you to give my system a tryout. The cost is nothing and when you finally start to live up to your potential, the rewards, both personal and financial, are wonderful.


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