Let's define productivity. Productivity is a measure of efficiency of a person completing a task. We often assume that productivity means getting more things done each day. Wrong. Productivity is getting important things done consistently. And no matter what you are working on, there are only a few things that are truly important.
Being productive is about maintaining a steady, average speed on a few things, not maximum speed on everything.
We are, of course, capable of doing two things at the same time. It is possible, for example, to watch TV while cooking dinner or to answer an email while talking on the phone.
This wouldn’t be a big deal if the human brain could transition seamlessly from one job to the next, but it can’t. Multitasking forces you to pay a mental price each time you interrupt one task and jump to another. In psychology terms, this mental price is called the switching cost.
Switching cost is the disruption in performance that we experience when we switch our attention from one task to another. A
2003 study published in the International Journal of Information Management found that the typical person checks email once every five minutes and that, on average, it takes 64 seconds to resume the previous task after checking your email.
In other words, because of email alone we typically waste one out of every six minutes.
The myth of multitasking is that it will make you more effective. In reality, remarkable focus is what makes the difference. (Image inspired by Jessica Hagy.)
Mastery requires focus and consistency, which means you need to know how to focus on one task at a time (
read the full guide to focus here), and say no to being busy. Let's talk more about that now.
Before we talk about how to get started, I wanted to let you know I researched and compiled science-backed ways to stick to good habits and stop procrastinating. Want to check out my insights?
Download my free PDF guide “Transform Your Habits” here. Saying No to Being Busy
In addition to wearing our ability to multitask as a badge, we’ve also fallen into a trap of busyness and overwork. In many ways, we have mistaken all this activity to be something meaningful. The underlying thought seems to be,
“Look how busy I am? If I’m doing all this work, I must be doing something important.” And, by extension, “I must be important because I’m so busy.”
While I firmly believe everyone has worth and value, I think we’re kidding ourselves if we believe being busy is what drives meaning in our lives.
In my experience, meaning is derived from contributing something of value to your corner of the universe. And the more I study people who are able to do that, people who are masters of their craft, the more I notice that they have one thing in common…
The people who do the most valuable work have a remarkable willingness to say no to distractions and focus on their one thing.
I think we need to say no to being busy and say yes to being committed to our craft. That is the core of smart time management and productivity and is what the rest of this guide will focus on.
Eliminate Time Wasting Activities by Using the “Eisenhower Box”
Dwight Eisenhower lived one of the most productive lives you can imagine. Eisenhower was the 34th President of the United States, serving two terms from 1953 to 1961. Before becoming president, Eisenhower was a five-star general in the United States Army, served as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, and was responsible for planning and executing invasions of North Africa, France, and Germany. At other points along the way, he served as President of Columbia University, became the first Supreme Commander of NATO, and somehow found time to pursue hobbies like golfing and oil painting.
Eisenhower had an incredible ability to sustain his productivity not just for weeks or months, but for decades. And for that reason, it is no surprise that his methods for time management, task management, and productivity have been studied by many people.
His most famous productivity strategy is known as the Eisenhower Box and it’s a simple decision-making tool that you can use right now. Let's talk about how to be more productive and how Eisenhower's strategy works.
The Eisenhower Box: How to be More Productive
Eisenhower’s strategy for taking action and organizing your tasks is simple. Using the decision matrix below, you will separate your actions based on four possibilities.
Urgent and important (tasks you will do immediately).
Important, but not urgent (tasks you will schedule to do later).
Urgent, but not important (tasks you will delegate to someone else).
Neither urgent nor important (tasks that you will eliminate).
The great thing about this matrix is that it can be used for broad productivity plans (“How should I spend my time each week?”) and for smaller, daily plans (“What should I do today?”).
Here is an example of what my Eisenhower Box looks like for today.
Urgent tasks are things that you feel like you need to react to: emails, phone calls, texts, news stories. Meanwhile, in the words of Brett McKay, “Important tasks are things that contribute to our long-term mission, values, and goals.”
Separating these differences is simple enough to do once, but doing so continually can be tough. The reason I like the Eisenhower Method is that it provides a clear framework for making the decisions over and over again. And like anything in life, consistency is the hard part.
The fastest way to get something done — whether it is having a computer read a line of code or crossing a task off your to-do list — is to eliminate that task entirely. There is no faster way to do something than not doing it at all. That’s not a reason to be lazy, but rather a suggestion to force yourself to make hard decisions and delete any task that does not lead you toward your mission, your values, and your goals.
Too often, we use productivity, time management, and optimization as an excuse to avoid the really difficult question: “Do I actually need to be doing this?” It is much easier to remain busy and tell yourself that you just need to be a little more efficient or to “work a little later tonight” than to endure the pain of eliminating a task that you are comfortable with doing, but that isn’t the highest and best use of your time.
As Tim Ferriss says, “Being busy is a form of laziness — lazy thinking and indiscriminate action.”
I find that the Eisenhower Method is particularly useful because it pushes me to question whether an action is really necessary, which means I’m more likely to move tasks to the “Delete” quadrant rather than mindlessly repeating them.
To be honest, if you simply eliminated all of the things you waste time on each day then you probably wouldn't need any tips on how to be more productive at the things that matter.
Here's one of my favorite methods for focusing your attention on what matters and eliminating what doesn’t…
How to Maximize Your Focus and Master Your Priorities
This method comes from the famous investor Warren Buffett and uses a simple 3-step productivity strategy to help you determine your priorities and actions. You may find this method useful for making decisions and getting yourself to commit to doing one thing right away. Here’s how it works…
One day, Buffett asked his personal pilot to go through the 3-step exercise.
STEP 1: Buffett started by asking the pilot, named Mike Flint, to write down his top 25 career goals. So, Flint took some time and wrote them down. (Note: You could also complete this exercise with goals for a shorter timeline. For example, write down the top 25 things you want to accomplish this week.)
STEP 2: Then, Buffett asked Flint to review his list and circle his top 5 goals. Again, Flint took some time, made his way through the list, and eventually decided on his 5 most important goals.
STEP 3: At this point, Flint had two lists. The 5 items he had circled were List A, and the 20 items he had not circled were List B.
Flint confirmed that he would start working on his top 5 goals right away. And that’s when Buffett asked him about the second list, “And what about the ones you didn’t circle?”
Flint replied, “Well, the top 5 are my primary focus, but the other 20 come in a close second. They are still important so I’ll work on those intermittently as I see fit. They are not as urgent, but I still plan to give them a dedicated effort.”
To which Buffett replied, “No. You’ve got it wrong, Mike. Everything you didn’t circle just became your Avoid-At-All-Cost list. No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you’ve succeeded with your top 5.”
I love Buffett’s method because it forces you to make hard decisions and eliminate things that might be good uses of time, but aren’t great uses of time. So often the tasks that derail our focus are ones that we can easily rationalize spending time on.
Buffett's method and Eisenhower's Box both help us with focusing on the tasks that matter most, but chances are, you're probably also losing productivity to everyday distractions in the background of every task you work on.
Even if you know
which task to work on, you can still easily be distracted if you're in an environment divides your time and energy. Let's talk about that now… Eliminate Half–Work At All Costs
In our age of constant distraction, it’s stupidly easy to split our attention between what we should be doing and what society bombards us with. Usually, we’re balancing the needs of messages, emails, and to–do lists at the same time that we are trying to get something accomplished. It’s rare that we are fully engaged in the task at hand.
I call this division of your time and energy “half–work.”
Here are some examples of half–work…
You start writing a report, but stop randomly to check your phone for no reason or to open up Facebook or Twitter.
You try out a new workout routine. Two days later, you read about another “new” fitness program and try a little bit of that. You make little progress in either program and so you start searching for something better.
Your mind wanders to your email inbox while you’re on the phone with someone.
Regardless of where and how you fall into the trap of half–work, the result is always the same: you’re never fully engaged in the task at hand, you rarely commit to a task for extended periods of time, and it takes you twice as long to accomplish half as much.
Half–work is reason why you’re able to get more done on your last day before vacation (when you really focus) than you do in the 2 weeks previous (when you’re constantly distracted).
Like most people, I deal with this problem all of the time and the best way I’ve found to overcome it is to block out significant time to focus on one project and eliminate everything else.
For example, I carve out a few hours (or even an entire work day) to deep dive on an important project. I’ll leave my phone in another room and shut down my email, Facebook, and Twitter.
This complete elimination of distractions is the only way I know to get into deep, focused work and avoid fragmented sessions where you’re merely doing half–work.
II. How to Build a Productive Day
The first part of this guide laid out everything you need to know about overall strategies for productivity. But what about the day-to-day? There are habits and methods you can adopt to maximize your productivity on any given day, as well. That's what this section is all about.
Master Your Morning
You’ll wake up for about 25,000 mornings in your adult life, give or take a few. Here are 7 strategies for getting the most out of those mornings and developing a better morning routine.
1. Manage your energy, not your time. If you take a moment to think about it, you’ll probably realize that you are better at doing certain tasks at certain times. For example, my creative energy is highest in the morning, so that’s when I do my writing each day.
By comparison, I block out my afternoons for interviews, phone calls, and emails. I don’t need my creative energy to be high for those tasks, so that’s the best time for me to get them done. And I tend to have my best workouts in the late afternoon or early evening, so that’s when I head to the gym.
What type of energy do you have in the morning? What task is that energy best suited for?
2. Prepare the night before. I don’t do this nearly as often as I should, but if you only do one thing each day then spend a few minutes each night organizing your to–do list for tomorrow. When I do it right, I’ll outline the article I’m going to write the next day and develop a short list of the most important items for me to accomplish. It takes 10 minutes that night and saves 3 hours the next day.
3. Don’t open email until noon. Sounds simple. Nobody does it. It took me awhile to get over the urge to open my inbox, but eventually I realized that everything can wait a few hours. Nobody is going to email you about a true emergency (a death in the family, etc.), so leave your email alone for the first few hours of each day. Use the morning to do what’s important rather than responding to what is “urgent.”
4. Turn your phone off and leave it in another room. Or on your colleague's desk. Or at the very least, put it somewhere that is out of sight. This eliminates the urge to check text messages, Facebook, Twitter, and so on. This simple strategy eliminates the likelihood of slipping into half–work where you waste time dividing your attention among meaningless tasks.
5. Work in a cool place. Have you ever noticed how you feel groggy and sluggish in a hot room? Turning the temperature down or moving to a cooler place is an easy way to focus your mind and body. (Hat tip to Michael Hyatt for this one.)
6. Sit up or stand up. Your mind needs oxygen to work properly. Your lungs need to be able to expand and contract to fill your body with oxygen. That sounds simple enough, but here’s the problem: most people sit hunched over while staring at a screen and typing.
When you sit hunched over, your chest is in a collapsed position and your diaphragm is pressing against the bottom of your lungs, which hinders your ability to breathe easily and deeply. Sit up straight or stand up and you’ll find that you can breathe easier and more fully. As a result, your brain will get more oxygen and you’ll be able to concentrate better.
(Small tip: When sitting, I usually place a pillow in the small of my back. This prevents my lower back from rounding, which keeps me more upright.)
7. Develop a “pre–game routine” to start your day. My morning routine starts by pouring a cold glass of water. Some people kick off their day with ten minutes of meditation. Similarly, you should have a sequence that starts your morning ritual. This tiny routine signals to your brain that it’s time to get into work mode or exercise mode or whatever mode you need to be in to accomplish your task. Additionally, a pre–game routine helps you overcome a lack of motivation and get things done even when you don’t feel like it.
For more details about why this works, read this:
How to Get Motivated. Do the Most Important Thing First
Once you've completed your morning routine, you should be ready to get to work. Does it matter which task you get started on first? Yes, I think so.
Ernest Hemingway woke each morning and began writing straight away.
He described his daily routine by saying, “When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write.”
No need to draw this out. This productivity strategy is straightforward: Do the most important thing first each day.
The Ivy Lee Method is a dead simple way to implement this strategy. Here's what you do:
At the end of each work day, write down the six most important things you need to accomplish tomorrow. Do not write down more than six tasks.
Prioritize those six items in order of their true importance.
When you arrive tomorrow, concentrate only on the first task. Work until the first task is finished before moving on to the second task.
Approach the rest of your list in the same fashion. At the end of the day, move any unfinished items to a new list of six tasks for the following day.
Repeat this process every working day.
Here’s what makes it so effective:
It’s simple enough to actually work. The primary critique of methods like this one is that they are too basic. They don’t account for all of the complexities and nuances of life. What happens if an emergency pops up? What about using the latest technology to our fullest advantage? In my experience, complexity is often a weakness because it makes it harder to get back on track. Yes, emergencies and unexpected distractions will arise. Ignore them as much as possible, deal with them when you must, and get back to your prioritized to-do list as soon as possible. Use simple rules to guide complex behavior.
It forces you to make tough decisions. I don’t believe there is anything magical about Lee’s number of six important tasks per day. It could just as easily be five tasks per day. However, I do think there is something magical about imposing limits upon yourself. I find that the single best thing to do when you have too many ideas (or when you’re overwhelmed by everything you need to get done) is to prune your ideas and trim away everything that isn’t absolutely necessary. Constraints can make you better. Lee’s method is similar to Warren Buffett’s 25-5 Rule, which requires you to focus on just five critical tasks and ignore everything else. Basically, if you commit to nothing, you’ll be distracted by everything.
It removes the friction of starting. The biggest hurdle to finishing most tasks is starting them. (Getting off the couch can be tough, but once you actually start running it is much easier to finish your workout.) Lee’s method forces you to decide on your first task the night before you go to work. This strategy has been incredibly useful for me: as a writer, I can waste three or four hours debating what I should write about on a given day. If I decide the night before, however, I can wake up and start writing immediately. It’s simple, but it works. In the beginning, getting started is just as important as succeeding at all.
It requires you to single-task. Modern society loves multi-tasking. The myth of multi-tasking is that being busy is synonymous with being better. The exact opposite is true. Having fewer priorities leads to better work. Study world-class experts in nearly any field—athletes, artists, scientists, teachers, CEOs—and you’ll discover one characteristic runs through all of them: focus. The reason is simple. You can’t be great at one task if you’re constantly dividing your time ten different ways. Mastery requires focus and consistency. Tiny Milestones, More Momentum
There is one common problem with the approach of ranking your priorities and doing the most important thing first, though.
After ranking your priorities for the day, if the number one task is a really big project then it can leave you feeling frustrated because it takes a long time to finish.
For example, last week I was working on a project that took two days to complete. On Tuesday morning, when I began the task, I knew I wouldn’t be able to finish it that day. Even through I knew I would work all day without completing the task, I still found myself feeling frustrated by mid-afternoon. It was 4 p.m. and I had spent all day working on the most important task, yet the only thing I had to show for my work was an unfinished project. My to-do list was just as long as it was in the morning, even though I was spending my time in the correct way.
I was doing the right thing, but it can still be disheartening to be stuck on Task #1 when you've been working all day. These feelings of frustration are a possible downside of the prioritized to-do list.
Writer Anthony Trollope, however, developed a solution to this common problem.
Beginning with his first novel in 1847, Trollope wrote at an incredible pace. Over the next 38 years, he published 47 novels, 18 works of non-fiction, 12 short stories, 2 plays, and an assortment of articles and letters.
Trollope achieved his incredible productivity by writing in 15-minute intervals for three hours per day.
His strategy is explained in Mason Currey’s book,
Daily Rituals ( audiobook):
“It had at this time become my custom,—and is still my custom, though of late I have become a little lenient of myself—to write with my watch before me, and to require of myself 250 words every quarter of an hour…
This division of time allowed me to produce over ten pages of an ordinary novel volume a day, and if kept up through ten months, would have given as its results three novels of three volumes each in the year…”
Trollope’s approach may seem simple on the surface, but there is more going on here than it may appear at first glance.
Portrait of Anthony Trollope and his glorious beard. (Photographer: Napoleon Sarony)
Trollope was in the business of writing books, and writing a book is a big project. It is not the type of task that you can complete in a day. In some cases, merely writing a chapter is too big a task for a single day.
However, instead of measuring his progress based on the completion of chapters or books, Trollope measured his progress in 15-minute increments. This approach allowed him to enjoy feelings of satisfaction and accomplishment very quickly while continuing to work on the large task of writing a book.
This is a big deal for two reasons:
Small measures of progress help to maintain momentum over the long-run, which means you’re more likely to finish large tasks.
The faster you complete a productive task, the more quickly your day develops an attitude of productivity and effectiveness.
I have found this second point, the speed with which you complete your first task of the day, to be of particular importance for maintaining a high productive output day after day.
Trollope didn’t have to wait three months to feel a sense of accomplishment from completing his book nor did he have to wait three days until he finished a chapter. Every fifteen minutes he could check his progress. If he wrote 250 words, he could mentally check that time block off his list and feel a sense of immediate accomplishment.
Trollope's 15-minute writing block was a well-designed progress meter that allowed Trollope to “get to finished” faster while still working on a big task. He received the long-term value of working on the most important things and the immediate payoff of finishing each little time block quickly.
You can employ a similar strategy for tasks besides writing, of course. For example, rather than measuring his progress on a bigger task like monthly revenue, Trent Dyrsmid tracked each sales call he made
with a paper clip.
The basic idea is to design a way to get rapid feedback while working on bigger projects. The faster we get feedback that we are moving in the right direction, the more likely we are to continue moving that way.
Work for the long-term. Measure your progress for the short-term.
Stick to the Schedule, No Matter How Small
When it comes to the day–to–day grind, following a schedule is easier said than done. Ask anyone who plans to workout every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and they can tell you how hard it is to actually stick to their schedule every time without fail.
To counteract the unplanned distractions that occur and overcome the tendency to be pulled off track, I’ve made a small shift in how I approach my schedule. My goal is to put the schedule first and not the scope, which is the opposite of how we usually approach our goals.
For example, let’s say you woke up today with the intention of running 3 miles this afternoon. During the day, your schedule got crazy and time started to get away from you. Now you only have 20 minutes to workout.
At this point, you have two options.
The first is to say, “I don’t have enough time to workout today,” and spend the little time you have left working on something else. This is what I would usually have done in the past.
The second option is to reduce the scope, but stick to the schedule. Instead of running 3 miles, you run 1 mile or do five sprints or 30 jumping jacks. But you stick to the schedule and get a workout in no matter what. I have found far more long–term success using the this approach than the first.
On a daily basis, the impact of doing five sprints isn’t that significant, especially when you had planned to run 3 miles. But the cumulative impact of always staying on schedule is huge. No matter what the circumstance and no matter how small the workout, you know you’re going to finish today’s task. That’s how little goals become lifetime habits.
Finish something today, even if the scope is smaller than you anticipated.
III. Maintaining Long-Term Productivity
Time Assets vs. Time Debts
Most productivity strategies focus on short-term efficiency: how to manage your to-do list effectively, how to get more done each morning, how to shorten your weekly meetings, and so on. These are all reasonable ideas.
We often fail to realize, however, that there are certain strategic choices that impact our time on a larger scale. These choices can be categorized as Time Assets or Time Debts, which are two concepts I learned from Patrick McKenzie.
TIME ASSETS are actions or choices you make today that will save you time in the future.
Software is a classic example of a time asset. You can write a program one time today and it will run processes for you over and over again every day afterward. You pay an upfront investment of time and get a payoff each day afterward.
The car leasing system that Steve Jobs developed is another example of a time asset. It took him some time to find a loophole and arrange a repeatable leasing system, but his process rewarded him with additional time and less hassle every 6 months.
TIME DEBTS are actions or choices you make today that will cost you additional time in the future.
Email is a time debt that most people participate in each day. If you send an email now, you are committing to reading the reply or responding with an additional message later. Every email you send creates a small debt that you have to pay back at a later time.
This is not to say that all time debts are bad. Perhaps you enjoy serving on your school committee or volunteering with a local organization. However, when you make these commitments, you are also creating a time debt that you will have to pay at some point. Sometimes the debts we commit to are worth sacrificing for, many times they are not.
Time Assets and Time Debts give you a system for spending your time.
Systems are more important than goals, and Time Assets are a perfect example of why this is true. Each Time Asset that you create is a system that goes to work for you day in and day out.
If your schedule is filled with Time Debts, then it doesn’t matter how hard you work. Your choices will constantly put you in a productivity hole. However, if you strategically build Time Assets day after day, then you multiply your time exponentially.
Plan for Failure
Consistency is essential for success in any area. There is no way to get around the fact that mastery requires a volume of work.
But if you want to maintain your sanity, reduce stress, and increase your odds of long-term success, then you need to plan for failure as well as focus on consistency. Planning to fail doesn’t mean that you expect to fail, but rather than you know what you will do and how you will
get back on track when things don’t work out. If you’re focused on being perfect, then you’re caught in an all-or-nothing trap.
Meanwhile, if you realize that individual failures have little impact on your long-term success, then you can more easily rebound from failures and setbacks. Being consistent is not the same as being perfect.
The If-Then Technique is the perfect way to plan for failure and stick to your goals even when life gets crazy. Why? Because it forces you to create a strategy for reducing the scope, but sticking to the schedule
before you actually need to do so.
All you need to do is complete this phrase: “If [something unexpected], then [your response].”
If I don’t wake up in time to run tomorrow morning, then I’ll run after work.
If I can’t make it to yoga during my lunch break, then I’ll take a stretching break this afternoon.
If I buy something unhealthy for lunch, then I’ll cook a healthy meal for dinner.
The If-Then Technique forces you to consider the unpredictable circumstances that so often enter our daily lives. And that means you have fewer excuses for doing nothing and more options for sticking to your goals.
You can also use this technique as a way to plan for poor performances as well. For example, a basketball player could say, “If I miss 10 free throws at practice, then I’ll visualize myself making 20 free throws before I fall asleep tonight.”
It’s a useful way of forcing yourself to consider how you will
practice deliberately rather than just putting your time. Fall in Love With Boredom
If you want to fulfill your potential then you must practice a specific skill for a long time with remarkable consistency. Mastery is never an accident.
Somehow, top performers in any craft figure out a way to
fall in love with boredom, put in their reps, and do the work.
All too often, we think our goals are all about the result. We see success as an event that can be achieved and completed.
Here are some common examples…
Many people see entrepreneurship as an event:
“If we could get our business featured in the New York Times, then we’d be set.” Many people see art as an event:
“If I could just get my work featured in a bigger gallery, then I’d have the credibility I need.”
Those are just a few of the many ways that we categorize success as a single event.
But if you look at the people who are consistently achieving their goals, you start to realize that it’s not the events or the results that make them different. It’s their commitment to the process. They fall in love with the daily practice, not the individual event.
What’s funny, of course, is that this focus on the process is what will allow you to enjoy the results anyway…
If you want to be a great writer, then having a best-selling book is wonderful. But the only way to reach that result is to fall in love with the process of writing.
If you want the world to know about your business, then it would be great to be featured in Forbes magazine. But the only way to reach that result is to fall in love with the process of marketing.
If you want to become significantly better at anything, you have to fall in love with the process of doing it. You have to fall in love with building the identity of someone who does the work, rather than merely dreaming about the results that you want.
In other words…
Fall in love with boredom. Fall in love with repetition and practice. Fall in love with the process of what you do.
Best Productivity Books
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best productivity books. All Productivity Articles
This is a complete list of articles I have written on productivity. Enjoy!
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