Comprehensive Guide to Being Productive
This is going to be one of the most comprehensive guides available to being productive. It will contain tips and tricks (and most importantly the reasons why they work) to help you manage your time and get tasks done effectively. I’m writing this as the project lead for eziTask (our online tool for assigning tasks within small businesses), having learned a great deal from helping create eziTask, experience with past attempts at my own startups (for the record they failed, but sometimes failure teaches you the most), and working at some big companies like Amazon and Apple. In this guide you will find both immediate tips you can easily start using today, as well as long term habit changes that will take more significant effort to achieve.
Part 1: Techniques & Habits
Keeping a short goals list
We’ll start with a commonly cited technique for being productive. It’s the simple technique of keeping today’s todo list short. Your goals list for the day should be only two or three items long. That’s it! This is a simple mental trick to push your brain to believe in your own abilities. For myself, over the years I’ve found that overwhelmingly, if I had a long list of todos with 20 tasks written down to complete for the day, I would feel stressed about it, sometimes consciously stressed, sometimes without really realizing it. When even a little bit of stress hits you, your brain automatically wants to get away and rest. Perhaps watching a little bit of YouTube will help me feel a little better and I can get back to work in five minutes? Maybe just a little break looking at some Facebook updates, or a quick nap? Sadly, these don’t actually succeed in reducing your stress, but sometimes you are sitting at your desk and can unconsciously wander into doing these activities.
The reason is simple – you created that stress for yourself by writing so many tasks down, and when you look at them you don’t feel that you’ll be able to easily complete them all today, or at least without resorting to staying at the office into the night or sacrificing time with loved ones. And the solution is simple too, just write down a very short list of two or three items – the most important tasks you’d like to complete today. Everything else that you need to do, put into a separate list that you will not think about nor even look at until tomorrow; they do not exist.
The benefits of this simple productivity technique are awesome, and it works even though you consciously know how the trick works. In practice (and I’ve personally put this into practice many times), this works quite smoothly, and all of the tasks on the small list get done. But what happens when my remaining 17 tasks get delayed to tomorrow, aren’t I just making tomorrow even more busy, you ask? In my experience it works out like this: if I’ve got 20 tasks written to do today, I end up finishing maybe 6, and I feel pretty stressed at the end of the day after forcing myself to complete 10 tasks. However, if I write down 3 tasks, after I easily complete those 3 tasks, I find myself fairly impressed by myself… Holy mackerels and salmons am I a productivity machine! This feels good, let’s take another item off of tomorrow’s list, ’cause I feel like a rock star! And thus it begins, feeling good begets productivity, and you end up finishing 12 tasks for the day.
And a side benefit of this task management technique: being forced to only write down three tasks to do for the day, causes you to think about which three are most important, forcing you to prioritize tasks.
Break it down into multiple steps
One of the most damning roadblocks to being productive is the vaguely written task. Perhaps on your todo list for today, the most important task is to evaluate a new supplier to your business that supplies paper to your printing press business. Your todo list says: Evaluate new paper supplier. This task is fairly difficult to start, because it’s hiding much of what you need to do. In fact, we can separate it into several smaller steps (in reality it could be even more complex, but let’s just use this as an example):
1. Write email to new supplier to order two batches of sample paper
2. Walk across the hall and ask warehouse to retrieve two batches of sample paper from existing suppliers from storage
3. Test paper color comes within specs
4. Test paper tear strength comes within specs
5. Test paper weight comes within specs
6. Create Excel file comparing new supplier’s paper to existing suppliers
7. Set up meeting to evaluate test results
When you see “Evaluate new paper supplier”, your mind isn’t quite sure yet what to do. The task is not only slightly vague, but also hides the exact steps that you will need to take. In contrast, when you separate the task into smaller steps, you’ll see that each individual step is much more doable and approachable. You’ll feel a much smaller roadblock to starting on step 1, than when looking at the vague task name. You know exactly how to acquire new paper samples (email the new supplier), who to ask for stored paper samples (the warehouse), which tests to do (and if you don’t know how to do them, you’ll know that you’ll need to ask the relevant experts). When the task is vague and broad, you end up dreading the action of starting the task, because you just know that the task carries with it a lot of baggage (you actually need to go through multiple steps to achieve this one task). When the task is broken down into individual steps, you are looking at smaller more achievable mini-tasks, thereby scaring your mind a little bit less, and reducing the chances of you running away and procrastinating.
Keep in mind though what we mentioned earlier, of keeping the goals list short. The whole purpose of that section was to make sure you don’t scare yourself with too many tasks. When you break a task into smaller achievable steps, the shear amount of text in your todo list could be scary and stressful. So keep the broken down steps written on a different page in your notebook, so that when you look at your current task’s individual steps, you don’t see the other tasks for the day, and forget that there are other tasks for the day (this is important because there are potentially two other tasks in the list that could end up scaring you). Once you finish the current task, then start looking at the broader task list again. The key to avoiding procrastination is to manage the little bit of fear in the mind, which just doesn’t like to feel stressed that there are too many tasks to manage.
Check off one thing first
Now that there’s a list of todos (doesn’t matter if you’re looking at your two or three tasks for the day, or focusing in on the list of steps for one particular task), it’s a huge boost to your ego when you check off one item. It’s that first checkbox that makes you feel awesome; it’s the fuel for further productivity. A funny observation of mine (and of some of the mentors I’ve met over the years), is that one of the most important factors in how productive you are in the remainder of your day, is actually how productive you felt earlier that day. If you feel like you’ve achieved a lot today, then you’ll be more likely to achieve a lot in the second half of the day. It’s what some people may call being “on a roll”, and could almost be an addictive feeling of wanting to get more done after already successfully getting some things done.
At the same time, just getting started with a tiny first step of a long involved task can make you no longer scared of the task (yes, I’ve mentioned fear again – I’m scared of my todo list, and I suspect that you are too). Completing a task is almost like moving to a foreign country – you feel a bit scared until you’ve been there for your first day, then that fear simply changes into planning and taking care of logistics. Just like making the first step into a foreign country makes you start losing your fear for it, and start taking care of what you need to take care, taking your first step into a long involved task will have similar effects. We’re trying to change that feeling of being scared and wanting to go back to something you like better (cute cat videos on Youtube), into a feeling of being on a roll, like you’re Donald Trump (the businessman) closing real estate deals one after another. Just get the first step done and checked off, and you’ll find it much easier to continue on.
A useful shortcut if you really need a quick boost to get started on that productivity streak, is to make your first task something extremely easy to achieve. Even if it’s something trivial like “Drink coffee”, put it on your task list, and as soon as your lips touch coffee, check it off as complete! I’ll even make an exception to the “three tasks maximum on your todo list” rule if you want to add “Drink coffee” as your first task, making a maximum total of four tasks for the day, since I suspect drink coffee will be checked off pretty quickly anyways. Really, please do this, check off one thing first from your todo list, even if’s it’s “Drink coffee”. In fact, pushing this exception to the “three task rule” even further, you can add a bunch of quick 5-minute tasks to the front of your queue without worrying too much, since these are so easy that you’ll finish a bunch of them quickly, giving yourself a huge confidence boost and the drive to start tackling your more difficult tasks.
From my own experience, I don’t do this enough. I often have a long list of complicated tasks, and just looking at the list is stressful enough to cause me to run away and eat some ice cream instead. But when I’ve happened to have an easy task on my todo list, and have completed that first task, I’ve really felt the difference in my mental state – I feel like starting on another task because I feel good about the first one.
A good way to manage productivity is to break work into time segments. The prospect of working continuously into late night with no end in sight is going to be stressful. The prospect of working for 25 minutes, and taking a break, is a lot less daunting. Arranging for a schedule that includes a certain amount of time for rest is also going to be physically beneficial for you. A popular time management scheme is called the Pomodoro Technique. The basic principle is to work in a very concentrated and focused manner for 25 minutes, and then take a 5-minute break. Repeat this cycle a number of times (the suggested method is to repeat four times as a set, but you can tailor to your own needs). During those 25 minutes, it’s a very focused segment where no interruptions are to be responded to (unless it’s a real emergency of course). If a friend sends you a message, ignore. If a coworker sends you a message, ignore. Don’t check your email during the 25-minute segment. In fact it’s probably best to just put your phone off to the other side of your room or office (or quit your email program), unless of course the goal of your 25-minute period is to reach out to people. Focus solely on the one task you need to get done, and nothing else. Once the 25-minute period is over, take a good relaxing rest.
Another technique I’ve found that worked quite well is to set a custom schedule of my own. I really liked using a mobile app called Routines. It’s available for iOS, though I haven’t looked for an Android alternative yet. I created a schedule that fills my day with my preferred schedule, giving myself half an hour for breakfast at 9am for example, then one hour of work, and another half hour of stretching afterwards (and this continues until around dinnertime, when my schedule ends). The schedule works on the same principles as the Pomodoro Technique, with periods of work interrupted by shorter periods of physical activities like exercise or eating, though the lengths of time for each activity may be very different. I don’t try to keep the segments the same length of time as each other, as some are 30 minutes, some are an hour, some are two hours long. A great idea of course is to combine this with the Pomodoro Technique, so for example in a one-hour segment of work, take two 5-minute stretch breaks. Don’t put too many hours in the schedule, because scheduling 10 hours of work per day unconsciously stresses the mind, but scheduling only 5 hours per day makes for a happy and productive day. Simply looking at that 5-hour schedule and noticing that your day ends at 3pm is a great joy, and more often than not you will end up achieving more than if you’ve written a 10-hour schedule simply because once you start to be productive, you tend to continue being productive. Using Routines, the same schedule is automatically repeated for you every day, and the checkboxes for each item become reset once a new day starts. So every day that you work, you can check off each time segment in the schedule, and start fresh the next day. For me, I don’t always get through every checkbox, for example I may skip the 30-minute stretch sometimes, but just having that same schedule in front of me every day, with a fresh set of unchecked checkboxes, is a great tool to motivate myself to shut out interruptions and focus on the task at hand.
Paper is awesome
There’s something quite magical about paper. We live in a digital age where everything we create is saved in our computers or in the cloud, and it’s intangible to us. But paper is something that can be felt, moved around, and be crumpled and thrown against the wall if that’s what makes you happy. It’s another great tool to make yourself more productive.
Next time you have a task list for the day, write it down on paper. You can use Post-Its, they’re small and can be stuck to the edge of your computer screen for easy access. But what I’d actually suggest is to go ahead and buy a luxurious fountain pen topped with an exquisite feather, along with one of those notebooks bound with the softest leather and cashmere. Please do replace the suggested items with whatever you’d like, but the point is to make it luxurious, so you feel important. Not only are you checking off tasks from within the notebook’s pages, but you feel that you look good doing it. You feel like you’re Albert Einstein deeply pondering the Theory of Relativity. You feel like Martha Stewart investing in her next billion-dollar lifestyle business. You feel like Steve Jobs creating the original iPhone. Go ahead and spend ten dollars on a nice notebook, it’ll make work feel good. Of course I would still recommend keeping your task list on the computer (keeping a digital copy affords many conveniences), but when you’re ready to start your day, copy the task list to a notebook, and use that tangible copy for the day.
Going even further than that, have you ever tried to do work on your laptop, and simply stared into a blank white Microsoft Word screen in a state of torpor? It’s usually better to get a blank sheet of printer paper and a pen, and draw out some thoughts on paper first. For some reason, at least in my experience, the freedom of drawing circles and random thoughts on a piece of paper both reduces any roadblocks within your mind, as well as organizes thoughts easier than the screen of a word processor program with a cursor blinking in your face. And of course, this goes without saying, a clean desk helps, one with at least enough space to lay down that piece of printer paper of course, but ideally a very clean desk which helps to clear up your mind as well.
Another cool trick is to write down what you will do in the next hour or two. I’ve often found that if I immerse myself in my current task, I tend to forget what my next task is, and end up doing something not quite useful. I probably have a worse memory than most, but it’s likely that there are others out there who at least forget things occassionally, and this could be very helpful to remind you where to go next.
You’re burned out, you’re tired of working, it’s 11pm and you’re ready to go home and watch some TV. An quick half-hour of cartoons could be just that relaxation you need. Then, your boss comes over and says, hey, here’s a thousand dollars cash that I’ll give you as bonus, please just work one more hour. Would you agree to the deal? I suspect that you would very likely agree to it, and I suspect that this hour will be one of the more productive hours of your work life. It’s this immediate return on investment (ROI) that you get excited about, and all of a sudden you no longer remember being tired. We innately have a strong sense of ROI; if you’re investing a number of hours into something, it better be giving you back something in return. Talk about self-fulfillment, helping the world, and spiritual well-being all you want, but if you’re thinking about being “productive”, it almost always involves getting money for your work. Money in our society is roughly correlated with our ability to survive and live well – food and shelter is bought with money, and despite money not being able to buy happiness, it sure as heck prevents many daily situations that cause unhappiness.
Take half an hour to do a mental exercise. Calculate the amount of money that you make by doing one hour of work. If you’re freelancing and get paid by the hour, that’s easy. If you work full-time on a fixed salary, just divide by the number of hours within the salary period. Most people who are reading this article are likely to be compensated in a way that is at least roughly proportional to the amount of work put in. Just knowing that every hour of work that you put in can directly or indirectly cause a certain amount of money to be returned to you, can lead to a rise in productivity. And this exercise has a hidden but even more important benefit: making sure you know what the return on investment is for different types of tasks, gives you insight into which tasks are more important, and which tasks are more “busy work”. Only do something on your todo list if it either directly provides a return on investment of your time, or builds foundations that will in the future lead to return on investment.
This is my favorite technique for being productive. Imagine a straight road going from where we’re standing to a tree that’s 500 meters away. Imagine there also being a curved road that passes through a hill and a valley, that takes 1500 meters to get to the same tree. The shorter path may have taken 10 minutes to walk, while the longer path may take 30 minutes. Perhaps taking a rest, sitting at the fork in the road, and taking 2 minutes to analyze which path to take would have saved us from walking 30 minutes when it could have taken only 10.
In doing work, many (or perhaps most) will continue to do long hours of work every day, tiring themselves enough that it’s harder to see the big picture, and therefore occassionally choose the fork in the road that leads to a more arduous path. Often sitting down and analyzing the situation could save a ton of wasted work.
An example of being lazy paying off (actually, an example of not being lazy not paying off), was in a software project I was involved with. At the time I was working at Apple on the original iPhone before it was released to the world, and we were writing the test software that tested every iPhone that came off the assembly line at the factory. One of the tests was very complex took its original author many hours to write, and often ran into problems that would falsely tell the factory floor that the phone being manufactured was falty, after which the phone was sent to the repair station, where manual inspection happened and no actual problems were found. Many many many dollars were being spent sending perfectly okay iPhones into repair stations and being “repaired”. Digging into the situation, I found that the test was a complex mess of 1000 lines of code. After reading the code line by line and drawing out on a huge piece of paper exactly what it was doing, I figured out what the original author was trying to do, and realized that the guys who wrote iOS already had a function that exercised the piece of hardware that was being tested, and spit out an error if the piece of hardware failed to behave as expected. After all, if a piece of hardware needed to be exercised, iOS probably needs to exercise it already. In the end, the test was revised to be 3 lines of code, and consistently discovered only those phones which truly had hardware defects. The moral of the story is, a little bit of looking ahead and asking around, can save a lot of wasted work. Always keeping an eye open for where work may be wasted, or which tasks are not important enough to be done, can be the most effective productivity boost.
There’s also a whole movement called failing fast, which is often used by entrepreneurs in recent startups. Imagine you’re super excited to build your latest idea: a skate park for teenagers in your city, where the kids can bring their skateboards and make use of your park’s various creatively constructed ramps and pipes to practice and perform tricks on. You’ll cater your park towards boys ages 13 to 19, and get $100,000 in funding to construct features made of concrete and metal, as well as modifying the slopes of a few hills in your park and planting decorative plants. It would cost $5 to enter, and customers can stay as long as they would like. Now there’s always a slight chance that after all that work, and spending all that money, customer uptake is not as high as expected, and you would have failed at the endeavor. Finding out that the park is not profitable after investing so much time and money in it, now that’s what I call a slow, painful, expensive failure. If only we could predict whether this skate park could succeed beforehand, before sinking all that time and money into it? Well, there are ways to make all your potential failure points show up more clearly and quickly, “failing faster”. Well, a few obvious reasons why the park might not get as many customers as needed could be:
1. Teenagers don’t have $5 to spare for a skate park
2. Parents don’t think skateboarding is something they’d want their kids sinking much time into
3. Having a skate park in the location might anger neighbors
Before going ahead and building the skate park, sit down and draw out (on a piece of paper of course) some of the assumptions you have about your customers – some obvious ones could be “my target customers are willing to pay $___ for my product/service”, or “my target customers feel that they need ____ product/service”, or “my target customers already look for a similar product/service through ___”. You could write them as assumptions, or in a format similar to the three items listed above for the skate park, they mean the same thing, just have different grammar (one assumes the customer will do something, one is phrased to say that the customer might not do something).
The next step would be to devise quick and easy tests for each of your assumptions. Each of these should only take minimal effort (especially relative to the amount of effort required to fully carry out your plans). In the case of the skate park project, we’ll need to test that teenagers have the $5 to spare for our skate park, that their parents don’t mind that they spend lots of time at the skate park, and that the skate park won’t anger neighbors.
1. To test that teenagers have the $5 to spare for our entrance fees (and especially that they’ll be willing to spend that $5 on skateboarding), perhaps we can spend several hundred dollars to one or two thousand dollars to rent a set of portable wooden skateboarding equipment. The equipment could contain a number of different shapes and sizes for skateboarders to jump off of and do tricks on, and is laid out in a public area (after getting permission of course) for the weekend. Are passersby interested? Did our small marketing effort attract a lot of people to bring their skateboards and give us $5? The key is that we actually ask customers to pay the $5, this makes the test more accurate, as sometimes people will say one thing and do another. Do a lot of people who paid and tested the park tell you “wow, I wish you guys were here every day for me to skate here!”? The point is, let’s spend $2,000 and find out if our business will work, instead of spending our full $100,000 budget. If this test fails, then we’ve failed quickly (cheaply), and we’ve learned quickly (cheaply) that it may not be worth the effort to spend $98,000 and six more months on the project (that’s $98,000 and six months of hard, non-productive work saved!).
2. To test that parents won’t prevent their kids from frequenting our skate park, we could ask the parents directly what their views are about their kids going skateboarding twice a week, and spending money to do so. To be even more accurate in our testing, after asking the parents, actually offer a pack of ten entrance tickets, perhaps with a discount, and seeing if the parents are willing to buy for their kids. Talking to fifty parents could give some amazing insights.
3. To test that neighbors won’t be angry, we’d ideally recreate the test in the very same spot that we plan on opening the park in. The best idea would be to go back to our rented test park from test #1, and simply keeping it running for a few days in the location of the future real park. Bring bunches of teenagers in. Some teenagers will go skateboarding, some will chat with each other during rests. The noise levels would be most accurate this way, and check if any complaints are received. If this is simply not possible, do a survey of surrounding residents, or research the average demographic makeup of surrounding residents and compare with the city’s public records of noise complaints. The key here is to make sure surrounding residents don’t complain and lobby to shut down the park after it’s up and running.
Perhaps we’ve created a couple weeks of work for ourselves in devising these tests, but they help us in learning what might happen in the future. This testing isn’t a foolproof prediction of the future, but still gives us validated evidence of what will likely happen in the future. And in the chance that the tests fail, we’ve learned the the business would fail after spending $2,000 and two weeks, instead of after spending $100,000 and six months. We’ve “proven” quickly that this business would fail, and are given a chance to modify it slightly or to pursue another business idea that could be much more successful, without needing to go through the full six-month ordeal and in the end finding out that the business fails. It is this method of thinking that makes you clear on what direction you’re going, and that this direction will most likely lead to success. After all, getting 1000 hours of work done, and finding out that the work was wasted, isn’t any more productive than getting 100 hours of work done, and finding out the work was all put to good use.
Stay tuned for productivity hacks Part 2
This is all a lot of information, and if you’ve read all the way down to here, you must be extremely motivated to improve your own productivity. It may surprise you that this is only part 1 of 3 to this comprehensive productivity guide. In Part 2 I will go into more detail about using the right tools and environment to bring up your productivity, including a ton of nice tricks and hacks. In Part 3 I will go into how your body and health could affect productive work time as well. All links will appear here once they’re ready!
If you’re trying to manage a group or small business, give our tool eziTask a try. I’ve put a lot of effort into making it a good tool for assigning tasks to others, and tracking progress on those tasks. It’ll help you achieve some of the tricks mentioned above, especially with breaking tasks down into smaller steps. Since it’s still fairly new, you can (for now) still sign up for free and get a lifetime free account.
Previous update: November 8, 2016 (Added link to Part 2)
Updated: December 12, 2016 (Added link to new technique to schedule tasks) This is a cool new technique that I’ve found, and it’s been working quite well for me, and is the one big technique that extremely successful top entrepreneurs and business owners use to have become so successful.