Over 50,000 US users search for “productivity” in Google every single month.
When you add the long list of queries around productivity tips, productivity apps, productivity planners, and other forms of definitions around the term, we’re ranking over 300,000 total searches across the board.
We are all eager to fight procrastination and maximize our time. Best-case scenario, deliver more in less time, reduce stress and the tedious backlog at the end of the day, and get better at everything we do: professionally and personally.
But here’s a fun fact for you.
Productivity has always been a chore. Humankind has been dealing with maximizing efficiency while increasing impact for centuries.
We can validate this hypothesis by looking into Google Trends. But there’s something else that’s even more intriguing in this 5-year chart of users looking up productivity online:
The percentage of users interested in productivity hasn’t decreased or increased drastically over the past 5 years. But have you noticed these drops in searches that Google has conveniently remarked here?
The lowest 5 drops are all clocked between Dec 20 and Dec 28. Christmas and Hanukkah inevitably shift our focus to family, combined with the holidays at the end of the calendar year.
And apart from this gap, there are certain months where productivity searches are way off!
Summertime, of course. June and July mark the lowest interest in productivity around the year (with the exception of Christmas). There’s a notable decrease starting late in May and growing back early in August.
Productivity matters the most when school and work are back on track and students and employees together hunt for the Holy Grail in productivity. Acing that class or earning this Q4 bonus are strong motivating factors for getting the most out of your life — and here’s what we will cover in this productivity guide.
This is a compilation of my own strategies and tools that I used to perform at my best, and techniques I’ve learned from industry leaders and productivity trainers over the past 15 years.
1. The Decision Tree
Executives, managers, freelancers, consultants, and parents: We all have to make hundreds of decisions every single day.
Anything from “Where can I find an optimal parking spot” to “How to maximize these 30 minutes before the next meeting” to “Is this prospect aligned with our company culture.“
This is unbearable unless you have a strong foundation of values and goals.
Whenever you have to pick between “should I invest an hour in my personal brand for the long-term” or “call 5 more prospects from the list“, you need a predefined framework that holds the answer to this very question. One such framework is the Decision Tree.
While this exercise takes a while to complete, it’s a must-do.
You can start by building a comprehensive tree of what truly matters to you. Every day, you will face contradictory questions and deal with more than you can handle. Learning how to cope is all reliant on your prioritization queue which sits right under your tree of values.
- You always have to pick your kid up from school no matter what. This is an activity that sits on top of your tree.
- If personal branding is really important to you, make it a priority. Don’t make excuses with the “yet another lead” and just block 45 min. of your time daily on working on your brand.
- Is your cooking class really that important? If it truly charges you greatly, then make it a priority. But if it jeopardizes your work and can lead to more serious consequences after, consider if you’d skip classes every time an important request comes in.
These simple examples lead to the core answers. “Family vs. work”, “Time vs. professional development“, “Higher revenue vs. culture development”, “Tons of cash from a political party vs. less stress and no disappointment from certain team members.”
Decision trees can help you become highly productive by guiding you in making decisions swiftly.
Basically, a decision tree is like a diagram that shows how one decision can possibly lead to different scenarios which would then require another decision. You increase the level of your productivity since the decision tree simplifies and predicts the decision-making process for you.
You still need to revise your core framework every 6 months or so. But between your “sanity check” self-meetings, you accept these goals as axioms and base your decisions solely on your foundational paradigm of what you firmly believe in and believe would define you as your best self.
2. Eat the Frog
Do you always have a hard time managing your time and sticking to a productivity system with several interruptions to deal with? Does your to-do list end up overwhelming you, instead of organizing your tasks for you?
Eat the Frog is the productivity framework that encourages you to identify the biggest and most important task for the day and focus on it before anything else.
You must work on this task first thing in the morning or whenever you start your work so you will not have a chance to put it off at a later time.
This technique fights off procrastination and targets the 20% of your daily tasks that are often the most important.
Here’s a great read on this matter by Brian Tracy: Eat That Frog!: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time
3. The Eisenhower Matrix
Not all tasks are equal. They are often categorized according to the degree of their urgency or importance. Often, people are confused between what is “urgent” and what is “important.”
50% of respondents that use the Eisenhower Matrix feel their work is under control every single day. The other 50% of respondents feel their work is under control 4 days a week.Source: acuitytraining
The Eisenhower Matrix helps you make a clear distinction among tasks. Also called the Urgent-Important Matrix, this technique fits those who:
- lack the energy to work on long-term goals
- busy with tasks with minimal impact
It provides a visual method of time management by splitting tasks into four quadrants. Each quadrant follows a specific order of completion so each quadrant is labelled with numbers one to four and the following action points: do, decide, delegate or delete.
- Do: the most important and urgent tasks belong under this box
- Decide: important but not urgent tasks must be scheduled and worked on under this box
- Delegate: urgent but not important tasks must be delegated. They are often menial tasks that can be taken care of by others
- Delete: these are tasks that are absolutely not important and not urgent. You may still do them, but only when you have no other tasks to do
4. Time Blocking
“I don’t have time” is the number one excuse for procrastination.
Has anyone been granted more than 168 hours a week?
Making time is a matter of energy management and motivation.
If you are failing to make time for what matters the most to you, then you are either failing to manage your energy effectively or don’t care about this enough.
If surfing is more important than your job, either find a job near the ocean where you can surf (or teach) or find a way to land a remote job that pays “enough” for survival so that surfing is top of mind.
Otherwise, it’s just a hobby that falls under the “nice to have” category.
Time Blocking is a productivity framework that is suitable for those who are swamped for the most part of the day with several interruptions and instead of working on important tasks, they end up being reactive to these interruptions.
You can dedicate blocks of your time to specific tasks so others cannot easily steal your time. Although this appears to be a chore at first, you will be able to appreciate how you actually get more time focusing on your high-level priorities.
5. The Pomodoro Technique
The Pomodoro Technique is a powerful framework for employees who work on long, complex tasks continuously. I tried it for a few months back in my software engineering days when meetings, sales calls, and regular emergencies weren’t all too common.
60% of people using this technique feel their work is under control 4 or 5 days a week.Source: acuitytraining
Here’s how Pomodoro works in practice:
- Pick a new task at hand that you need to complete
- Set a 25-minute alarm for non-interrupted time to work
- After the work sprint, take a 5-minute break
- Every 4 pomodoros, take a 20 to 30-minute break before the coming sprint.
There are online apps that let you accomplish that (and even physical Pomodoro clocks that do the counting for you).
As you turn your phone and messengers off and truly focus on the job (being pressed by time), the odds of accomplishing more in less time increase significantly.
6. Getting Things Done
“Getting Things Done” is one of the older productivity methodologies originally announced by David Allen in 2001.
The productivity framework revolves around a number of activities on effective task management, resource allocation, and grouping assignments in an organized manner.
This management technique is organized around five different lists you manage:
- “In” (brain dump)
- Next actions (todo)
- Waiting for (blockers)
- Projects (larger activities)
- Some day (future)
Going through the incoming tasks follows a specific workflow in order to organize tasks properly (as seen in D&E’s chart):
GTD is more complex to implement, but if you’re looking for a single system to rule ’em all, investing some time in studying the system can yield awesome benefits.
7. The 1-3-5 List
The 1-3-5 list is one of my favorite techniques that I use when traveling or during the intense events season.
What it boils down to is a daily agenda that includes:
- 1 priority task to be done “no matter what”
- 3 doable activities you should do
- 5 low-effort, quick wins for the day
Instead of cluttering your backlog with everything and anything, pick a few items and assign them for the day. One step at a time with a clear roadmap ahead.
With less than 10 daily tasks to handle, constant interruptions could be prevented with the right preparation. This simplifies your weekly planning as well – delegating low priority requirements and optimizing your management backlog for the coming week will take no longer than 2 hours.
Alex Cavoulacos, the author of The New Rules of Work and a Founder of The Muse, is a proponent of the 1-3-5 method:
For example, when a surprise presentation falls on your lap, try: “Sure, I can get that to you by 3 PM, but the Q1 reports won’t be ready until tomorrow then, since I’d scheduled to work on that today.”
Cavoulacos also advises using your calendar as a to-do list. Completing the highest priority task before lunch can result in a notable motivation and a boost for closing the rest of the tasks before the end of the day.
A stand-alone app named “135 List” is the go-to companion for your smartphone or a browser if you want to dive into the philosophy of the core team.
In most cases, you have to clarify whether a task is really done or complete.
There are times when “done” can have several variations. For instance, try asking your teammates if an assignment has already been done or completed and you would get different responses that may have a connotation that a task is done, but is it really “Done-Done”?
You would be surprised how most tasks need more polishing although they are close to getting done. Make sure you clarify which part of a task is really done and which aspects need more work.
This productivity framework is also something you can incorporate in your management principles. You and your team will be able to develop appreciation for every detail especially you will be able to save time from having to do more reviews than necessary.
9. Interruption Science
After crossing off several techniques, let’s focus on what matters: focus itself.
Interruption science is the study of human performance including a myriad of factors affecting productivity.
Especially among office workers and important industry professionals (like doctors or prosecutors), implementing effective techniques with conducting critical activities with limited disruptions may be a life-or-death case.
With the evolution of push notifications, instant messengers, random robocalls, workers often receive over a hundred interruptions throughout the day. And more complex scenarios may require over half an hour in returning back to your focused state.
Some projects can seem too complex until you break them down into manageable tasks. If you would like to ensure transparency throughout the process, you can use the framework called Kanban.
Kanban helps you become productive by visualizing your work and emphasizing efficiency. Originally a Japanese concept, Kanban also translates to a billboard or a signboard.
Most project management leads incorporate Kanban when implementing the agile project management methodology. How does this work?
Specific work items must be displayed on a kanban board. Then, responsible team members can help you determine which of your work can be prioritized while also monitoring the progress of each item.
11. Don’t Break The Chain
Jerry Seinfeld, the infamous actor and standup comedian, has shared his alternative calendar system that helps him progress – both professionally and personally – one step at a time.
The secret to Seinfeld’s recipe is in projecting the bigger picture and embracing the time it takes to achieve results. Unlike the 1-3-5 method, Don’t Break the Chain relies on a gamified experience whenever there’s a major obstacle to overcome.
For example, you are determined to improve your public speaking skills in order to pitch your new product at TechCrunch Disrupt. There are 6 months to go and tons of fine-tuning ahead. Working on your body language and posture, clear pronunciation, coming up with powerful stories, and training your voice are just a small subset of the activities you are about to excel at.
Writing these down into a bloated list of tasks simply won’t work.
Seinfield – being your virtual coach – will hand you a calendar and tick today’s date. Your mission is to go through your draft pitch. Take some notes and mark it down on your calendar.
Repeat the same talk tomorrow, then the day after. Keep accumulating the track record of exercises on a daily basis. It’s all about incremental improvement and practice. Over time, your consecutive list of pitches will serve as a spiritual source forcing you to move forward.
Matt Mullenweg, co-founder of WordPress and the CEO of Automattic, shared his tips when it comes to chores that most people try to avoid at all costs over an interview for Tim Ferriss.
“Just before I got in the shower, I did 1 push-up.”, says Mullenweg. “And no matter how late are you running, no matter what’s going on in the world, you can’t argue against doing one push-up. Like, come on, there is no excuse. So, I often find I just need to like, get over that initial hump, with something that’s almost embarrassingly small.”
12. Bucket Lists
This is a technique I learned from one of my assistants (thanks Tai).
For context, all of my content online is written or recorded by me. However, repurposing content, aggregating Quora answers which get published on the blog, submitting Instagram captions gathered from my articles, editing videos, fixing subtitles (and more) are managed by my secret MBOT team working closely with me.
Maintaining dozens of recurring initiatives means that I have to bounce between work assignments frequently, and the volume of work is overwhelming.
So what my team established as a process is “bucket lists”.
A bucket list represents the volume of X every assignment has to maintain. For instance:
- 40 Quora questions I can jump in and respond to
- 8 blog post drafts to review before scheduling here
- 14 Instagram images or graphics going live on @dailypeshev
- 10 video snippets repurposed from my longer-form videos
- 15 content topic ideas gathered from tweet replies and LinkedIn comments
- 5 slide deck pitches based on my existing blog articles
By establishing this workflow, my team can effectively manage more initiatives per person on a weekly/monthly basis. Once a bucket is full, they hop on and start to maintain another bucket.
And when I have a spare couple of hours, I pick two or three buckets, spend some time rejecting headlines, answering questions, approving images and videos, and clean up some of the existing entries available to review. Buckets (almost) never deplete fully, so I have plenty to work with, and my team makes a note and prioritize tasks I’ve already worked on, making sure they’re back at full capacity soon enough.
Managing buckets sets expectations for you and your team and enables you to do more with fewer resources without tedious repetition.
Each Task Should Solve a Single Small Problem
Software development principles present the rule of “cohesion” – every function or a class should solve a single problem, a clearly defined one, with a well-focused purpose.
The more convoluted a problem is, the harder it is to design a solution, answer all blocking questions, and ensure you avoid regressions (and unnecessary back-and-forth).
A common mistake in managing your daily backlog (even if you employ the 1-3-5 list or GTD) is working on a vague set of tasks consuming your brain capacity and wasting precious time.
For instance, if you need to write an article and it’s a daily task of yours, consider breaking it down to smaller, individual pieces, clearly independent from one another and designed in the corresponding order, i.e.:
- Research 5 topic titles to work with
- Pick a topic most closely related to your priorities
- Design an outline with at least 6 headlines
- Research 4 statistics to be quoted in the piece
- Write the headline and the summary of the article
- Fill out the rest of the content
- Supplement with images
- Assign to Jane for an editorial review
This seemingly simple task suddenly morphed into easily digestible, but clearly defined goals. Even if you’re tired or moderately distracted at the time, working on clear assignments is a lot easier, progress is achieved quickly, work can be interrupted in the middle of the process, and longer assignments can even be distributed across several days.
Sticking to the rule of “task cohesion” will unblock you and set clear expectations toward the actual volume of work you have to undertake.
The most popular resolutions out there commence on New Year’s Eve.
During the retrospection of the past year, people all around the world decide to engage in new activities, enroll in a class, purchase a gym membership or simply task themselves to accomplish more than they could handle.
Enforcing reality checks and using some of the productivity frameworks reviewed here can help align expectations and deliver more than what you usually do. But aside from the mechanics of the exercise, it’s important to follow some common sense advice as well:
- Be realistic when defining your list of resolutions
- Don’t limit your planning to a singular Jan 1st effort
- Prepare a well-defined plan that reveals the full context of the plan
- Discuss the plan ahead with friends, colleagues, family
- Design an effective way to track progress
- Gamify the experience and reward yourself
- Establish realistic time frames and reasonable goals
- Clear out all and any obstacles that could hypothetically get in the way
- Don’t give up once you’re committed to the challenge
Your Energy Is The Most Important Asset
Do you know what makes entrepreneurs so effective at what they do?
No, it’s not just clocking 80-hour workweeks.
Entrepreneurs have the luxury to juggle with dozens of activities on a daily basis. While multitasking is known to hurt productivity, switching between different action items is a healthy exercise for your brain.
Spending 8 hours on preparing a complex spreadsheet is tiresome. But hopping between a strategy meeting and a sales call after reviewing the financial forecast and before you coordinate the product roadmap leads to an effective workflow that fully removes procrastination as an obstacle.
Diverse activities, scheduled appointments, tough deadlines are inevitably squeezing efficiency out of a leader.
More importantly, it’s an external factor that contributes to maintaining energy levels.
Energy is your biggest asset by far. If you are more productive in the morning, make the most out of this time. Arrive early at the office or prepare some tasks ahead of time while sipping your coffee. Night owls can arrange their agenda before wrapping up for the night and schedule all energy-intensive activities late in the evening.
Instead of looking for another hour to spare and catch up, carefully monitor and maintain your energy for maximum efficiency. Keep in mind that eating habits, sleep, and focused time greatly contribute to this equation.
Productivity As A Habit
Beginner managers or entrepreneurs often look for workarounds when it comes to squeezing some efficiency on top of their workday.
There are no shortcuts to success. But productivity frameworks and tools can enable you to accomplish more in less time, thus maximizing your time, and investing additional energy in the long-term strategy.
More importantly, productivity is a trainable skill. You have to practice it continuously. Refine your processes. Optimize your scheduling chops.
And as your business grows (along with your responsibilities), always keep an eye on new techniques that could come in handy at the right time.
What is the most integral productivity hack that you’re living by?