No matter how hard we plan there are times when adversity strikes and throws all our efforts off the rails. We’ve likely all experienced this at one time or another. In my own case it was quite recent, quite traumatic, and continues as an ongoing challenge.

Recently a member of my immediate family was struck by a sudden, severe illness resulting in the loss of movement and self-care. There was no warning, no early signs, no time to prepare. Within a matter of hours, the damage was done, catapulting my world into a level of chaos I was unprepared for but from which I did not have the opportunity to take time to recover. It was this situation that put my systems and tools to a level of test I had never expected nor designed them for.

The first test came in the need to manage the flow of communications to a large group of people unexpectedly. Normally our processes help us manage a controlled distribution of information, sending emails and texts, making calls, all with an even-handed approach. When crisis strikes, smooth control is exchanged with a firehose of demands and information. To my luck this is where the first part of my system came to my rescue.

I maintain all the contact information I need for family and friends in my smartphone. Now in any given month I may make a dozen calls. Most of my communications are electronic rather than voice. Within the first hours of the event I had made a dozen calls and that was only the beginning. I needed an immediate way to organize the contact information for instant access without wasting time searching.

Using the launcher on my smartphone, Evie launcher if you’re an Android user, I created a launcher page and added direct shortcuts to the most direct method to reach each key contact. For some that was a voice call, for others a text message. The important part was I didn’t need to remember what worked best for each person once the decision had been made. From that point on I could reach out to whomever I needed with just a tap.

I have thought about if it would have been more efficient, for those who use text messaging at least, to create a group text message and broadcast the updates. I decided against that due to the CC effect we all know can happen. Control of information flow was the paramount need more than convenience.

The next challenge was handling the massive influx of information I had to parse, understand, react to, and share. This is where the long-practiced habit of capture everything came into play. Unfortunately, this also revealed the largest weakness in my capture tools.

My capture tools are set up to handle a certain volume of incoming information at any time. The format could vary, but the amount never exceeded a reasonable level, such as action items during a staff meeting. This wasn’t the case any longer. Now I had information coming at me as fast as Eminem lyrics and there was no time to organize as I went. I had to capture as I went, starting and stopping at a moment’s notice, then circle back to make sense when a moment of quiet was found.

My saving grace was the ability to take handwritten notes on my smartphone. I know the argument will be made that typing could be faster (it isn’t) or that voice notes could be captured (they can’t when you’re trying to listen to a doctor or nurse on the phone) but what it came down to is I needed to write down and move on rather than worrying about auto-correct. Yes, you could accomplish the same thing with analog notebooks for the most part but for me the digital tools offered more advantages than disadvantages. Regardless of the tool, the process of immediate capture was critical, especially when you are operating on four hours of sleep out of 48 hours.

As the immediate crisis evolved into an ongoing support and care effort again, I fell back on my systems to provide the support I needed so I could provide the support needed from me. When a family member was worried and wanted to know what was going on, being able to look up the name of doctor, diagnosis, testing protocol, or treatment option not only provided information but also peace of mind. Nothing is more disconcerting than the phrase “I don’t know” when a loved one is in crisis.

If you’ve ever had a loved one in the hospital you know there are great stretches of waiting broken up with periods of stress, uncertainty, and doubt. I forced myself to follow my own advice and use those periods of waiting to process the information and formulate plans of actions and questions to ask. It sounds cold and clinical, but it truly kept me from breaking down and curling up into an overwhelmed ball of worry.

The idle time could be used looking up information, researching terms and courses of treatment to be followed, learning about tests and approaches for diagnosis. My normal tool of choice would have been OneNote but due to the need for rapid capture of text, handwriting, and images, and the subsequent sharing of that information I dove headfirst into Google Keep. I was willing to sacrifice the more structured parts of my system in deference to speed and flexibility.

Finally came the issue of continuing information access. Living wills, power of attorney documents, insurance documents all started to accumulate. Some were here, some were there, some were in “secure locations”, but all were needed at a moment’s notice when questions arose. Google Drive became my repository, not only for capacious storage but because of image scanning and folder sharing as well. I needed a way to have a file cabinet in my pocket and share that file cabinet with my sibling so we both had the information we needed at any time.

I’ll admit that if I looked at my productivity systems with a critical eye, I would cringe and likely chastise myself for allowing things to become so “imperfect”. But after the past few weeks I have yet again needed to remind myself the “perfect” system is a fool’s errand, and the single tool for all needs a unicorn in the forest. Holding to the core tenets of my system (capture, process, report) is what made the difference for me, not the tool I was using.

It is in the crucible of real life that we and our systems are tested. Only there do we know whether our hours of preparation and design have been worth the effort. Only there can we discover if we truly have a system we can trust. I don’t wish this kind of test on my worst enemy, but it has reminded me of a saying we should all follow when trying to be productive, “hope for the best but prepare for the worst.”

I’ve often said that productivity is, “doing the right things at the right times in the right ways.” Now I know that is a narrow and almost arrogant definition. True productivity is about systems handling the small things so we can focus on the most important project of all…life.