As people who are driven to find better ways to work, we seek out systems, workflows, and methodologies that we can use as guidelines for how we work. These give us nice little rules like “if it takes less than two minutes, just do it now” and teach us multi-step methods to gaining control of the open loops in our lives. These help tremendously but at a certain point can get in the way. The rules work in most cases but as we get more and more used to working within those guides it can become difficult to manage work that falls outside of that ruleset. Essentially, it works until it doesn’t, and that’s the time we need it most. We need a process that’s relative, adaptable, and appropriate for the work we do. We need to be approaching our “productivity” in a smarter way.

It’s easy to over engineer our workflows and create processes that work for us most days. When we get busy, when we get lazy, or when our attention shifts to something else, the complexity in the way we plan, organize, and structure our work and lives can lead to this system collapsing on itself leaving us in a worse place than we started. The opposite can happen too where the density of our process-oriented work can weigh on us and make it more difficult than it needs to be to make a grocery list. The problem comes in approaching these tools with the wrong mindset and not understanding how and when the pieces help. Methodologies can fail when you pick and chose the parts you want to use while other systems only become stronger when you leave behind the pieces that you don’t need.

Thinking of all the pieces that help us capture, organize, review, and do work as scaffolding will help give you an understanding of the value of each and provide a more relative outlook on your approach to “productivity” as a whole.

Scaffolding, like in construction, is a superstructure that gives a stable frame to get work done. It’s modular and the pieces are lightweight but when set up properly, create an incredibly stable system that’s adaptable, scaleable, and appropriate for the work that needs to happen. You can use scaffolding for construction that’s two stories tall and construction that’s twelve stories tall. It’s all about fitting the right pieces together so that the frame is appropriately sturdy for that work. For light work, you may not need much scaffold but as the scale of what you’re doing changes, so does the strength of the frame you do the work upon. Scaffolding isn’t the foundation. When the work on a building is done, you remove the superstructure around it and the work stands on its own. People who see the completed work may not ever see the scaffolding because the work is about the work, and not the way you do it.

Taking a scaffold-like approach is about creating the right levels of structure around the work you do to let it properly flow. You neither want to constrain your creativity by following weighty methods nor do you want to become overwhelmed by the work you have to do by alleviating yourself from process.

As I’ve been charting a direction for the next few years of my life (formally knowns as, but incorrectly named a “life plan”), I realize that granularity for timelines and details of things I want to happen in my life isn’t appropriate for the altitude I’m looking at. An OmniFocus project with next actions isn’t the right scaffold I need for ideas that are five years out. This isn’t a “plan” so it needs to be drawn up in a way that’s appropriate and adaptable for what it is. In this case, working in OmniOutliner gives me the flexibility I need to have a branch for what’s at 50,000 feet while being able to put more detail for what’s at 10,000 feet. I don’t need to ever think about, manage, or review what’s further out until I want to.

The same approach can be considered for all the work that we do. It starts with understanding the scale of the project we are undertaking. This helps us realize the stability and dependability of the frame we need to be working on top of. If there’s something I need to remember at the store when I go out this afternoon, writing it in my Field Notes is adequate. If it’s a three month development project with several milestones, dependancies, deliverables, and collaborative work along the way, I need something sturdier. Knowing these different tools, parts of workflows, and elements of frameworks allows you to fill the gaps that might exist in one of the others and support that with something you know works for you. Having one main software system that we trust can often feel like the best way to work, but imagine seeing a construction crew setting up scaffolding on a town house like they do at a skyscraper because “that’s the way they’re used to working.” We need to think about the tools that we have available and be assessing which ones are relevant for the work that we need to do. We need to be smart about choosing what fits together to build the right scaffold for the job at hand. Without that, we’re building scaffolding that’s too tall.

By seeing all of the elements of workflows, tools, and methodologies as pieces that could coexist or be substituted, we can learn to build strong and appropriate scaffolding to support the work we do.