8 Skills of Highly Unproductive People

Don’t be like them

Danny Forest
May 8 · 15 min read

Not all skills are created equal. If we go by the following definitions, I’m sure you can think of a few unproductive skills you have:

Skill: the ability to do something well.
Unproductive: not achieving much; wasting time.

Given those definitions, an unproductive skill is doing something well that isn’t achieving much.

The following eight are skills you may not have thought about and could be practicing regularly without giving it much thought.

Let’s check them out!

Skill #1. Devouring non-fiction books without taking notes
Skill #2. Making efficient things that should be done at all
Skill #3. Accepting everything blindly
Skill #4. Hacking sleep
Skill #5. Accumulating bad relationships
Skill #6. Living paycheque-to-paycheque
Skill #7. Saying "I can't"
Skill #8. Stopping Education after graduation

Skill #1. Devouring non-fiction books without taking notes

“What you can’t explain to others, you don’t understand yourself.” — Maarten van Doorn

What’s the point of reading a book to learn something and immediately forget its lessons? Surprisingly, many people are good at this.

If we look at the inverted pyramid of learning, we retain only 10 percent of what we are reading.

Why is it so bad?

If we believe that researchers are right about retention only being at 10 percent when reading, that is cause for alarm.

According to ExecuRead.com:

In technical material, the average reading rate is approximately 50 to 75 words a minute roughly 5 to 6 minutes per page.

That means it takes a long time to read a non-fiction book. So if you spend 5–6 hours reading a book, you’ve really learned 30–36 minutes of content from it. To me, that sounds really unproductive!

How to unlearn this skill?

In order to maximize retention when trying to learn something, you want to use multiple of your senses. The more the better. While reading, take notes. Read your notes out loud. Then, explain what you’ve learned to someone else. Never forget to put in practice what you’re reading either.

If we reference the inverted pyramid of learning again, by doing the above, you should retain about 90 percent of what you read.

Isn’t it amazing?

Spend three times the amount of time by doing active reading and you’ll retain about nine times more. That’s an incredible return on investment!

I know this is not easy because it’s a habit you have to break, but I hope you see the impacts of it now.


My friend Maarten van Doorn recently wrote the most comprehensive guide ever written on the topic: The Complete Guide to Effective Reading.

If this is too complex, start with this article by Nikos Adriotis: 8 Tips and Techniques for Learning Retention.

Skill #2. Making efficient things that shouldn’t be done at all

“There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” — Peter Drucker

So many people are masters at this skill. I’m guilty of it sometimes too. The good news is that there are methods to unlearn these skills.

Why is it so bad?

Doing things, by nature, takes time. Now, imagine you just spent three hours on something, only to realize that the results don’t really work towards your goals.

I’m sure that has happened to you a few times, right?

There are two reasons for this: (1) a lack of awareness, and (2) bad planning. Both are easily avoidable by spending a few extra minutes beforehand.

And the three hours example from above is nothing. People lose months working on projects that lead nowhere productive!

How to unlearn this skill?

It all starts by being aware of what your intentions are. Some people call it “knowing your why” or “having a chief aim”.

I wouldn’t be surprised that 90 percent of people wouldn’t be able to answer that easily: “Why do you do what you do?”

I can’t stress enough how fundamental it needs to be for you to be able to answer that in a short sentence of 7–12 words. That is your intent. That is your why. That is your chief aim. Without it, everything you’re doing efficiently really isn’t as efficient as you think it is.

Once you know it, never forget it. For every “golden” opportunity coming your way, always ask yourself: “Does it align with my chief aim?” If not, don’t do it. Saying no to a great opportunity is hard. We’re all wired to accept instant gratification over long-term results.

But they who master this is they who truly unlearn the skill of doing efficiently what shouldn’t be done at all in the first place.


My personal favourite book on the subject is Think and Grow Rich, by Napoleon Hill. It’s one of the best examples of an 80-year-old book that (mostly) stood the test of time.

For a shorter read and different take on it, read How to Make Better Decisions, by Niklas Göke

Skill #3. Accepting everything blindly

“Learn from yesterday. Live for today. Hope for tomorrow. The important thing is to never stop questioning.” — Albert Einstein

You’ve seen it on the news and you think it’s the truth? Think again!

You’ve read it on the web and you think it’s the truth? Think again!

You peer told you and you think it’s the truth? Think again!

Why is it so bad?

In an age of information overload, they who master the art of questioning is they who possess a greater quality of information. I learned the lesson a while back. Here’s a little story from my past:

Ten years ago, a friend asked me: “How certain are you about what you are telling me?”

“100%”, I would say.

Then he’d sink that information in his head, knowing that it was 100% true. He’d go around telling others about it. Most accepted the information. Some didn’t, and it turns out, those who didn’t were right. So he came back to me:

“Why did you tell me you were 100% certain? What was your source?”

“I heard it from someone else”, I said.

See the problem?

Because someone tells you something, or does something, doesn’t make it the truth. We are so stuck up on things people tell us or pass down to us that we forget to explore on our own, leading to fear of change. Yet in today’s world, change is the only constant.

This is terribly unproductive because we act under false pretence and waste valuable time for yourself and for others.

There’s a massive ripple effect to spreading false information. I’m sure you can think of many times where the messenger failed to deliver the message properly. And when that recipient spreads that message, they distort it in their own way, accidentally or not.

Sometimes, it’s more than unproductive, it’s dangerous.

How to unlearn this skill?

Our senses fail us. What we hear, see, touch, they are not always what they seem. Stay passionately curious and don’t take everything as truth. Curiosity is a skill we statistically lose by the age of 12. Yet it’s curiosity that helps counter this unproductive skill of accepting everything blindly.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of simple things you can do daily to get back this most important skill of curiosity:

  • Select a random object from your home and list down ten uses for it. The more single-usage it seems, the better. Start with a boot, you’ll be surprised how much you can do with a boot.
  • Be like Leonardo Da Vinci and question things we take for granted. Choose one thing every day. Why is something of a certain shape or color? Why do we drink a certain drink at a certain temperature? Why are cows not purple? Why is the combination of blue eyes/blond hair rare?
  • Learn a new word every day.
  • Take 10 minutes to research a topic you hear someone talk about during your day.


Get inspired by Leonardo Da Vinci in Walter Isaacson‘s biography of the genius. It’s one of my favourite biographies I’ve read.

For something shorter, read Seven Ways to Be More Curious, by Jonathan Wai.

Skill #4. Hacking sleep

“Sleep is the best meditation.” — Dalai Lama

Students do it. Working moms do it. Busy CEOs do it. Basically, “busy” people do it.

My wife used to make fun of me and said that I always needed my “beauty sleep”. How did getting good sleep become the subject of ridicule? When did it become “cool” to sleep less than you should?

I love sleeping. Does that mean I sleep 10 hours a day? No. But I will if I need it. I used to be a chronic insomniac. I had a really hard time falling asleep and ended up never sleeping enough. I was so concerned about getting my eight hours of sleep that it would keep me awake just to think about the fact that I was still awake.

No amount of sleep hacking could solve that.

Why is it so bad?

Sleeping less than you should is a terrible long term strategy. It has been proven to shorten your life span, yet many people are very good at that.

But you know what? Sleeping too much is just as bad as not sleeping enough, with none of the benefits of not sleeping enough (AKA getting more stuff done).

How to unlearn that skill?

The first step is to stop stressing about the number of hours you’re going to sleep. This actually keeps you awake.

If your brain keeps going at night, do a brain dump in a journal before going to bed. It seriously helps. Another really old trick is to read before bed. Why have we stopped doing that? It works great for many people!

If you can’t fall asleep within 30 minutes of trying, how about just doing the above again? Add to it some meditation. If you’re new to meditation, realize that it’s a skill and it takes practice, but once you’re good at it, it can do wonders for your sleep!

Outside of the little tricks above, make sure you are physically and mentally drained at the end of the day. People who do physical labour tend not to exercise their brain enough, and people who do mental labour tend not to deplete their physical energy enough.

If you haven’t depleted both energies, do it. Stop watching TV or scrolling Instagram and you’ll see a difference in a short amount of time.


For more detailed information about the problem with hacking your sleep, check out “The Problem With Sleep Hygiene”, by Nick Wignall. Also please check out “Sleep Habits: 61 Interesting Facts About Sleep”, by Jonathan Prichard.

Skill #5. Accumulating bad relationships

“Tell me with whom you consort with and I will tell you who you are.” — Goethe

The moment I realized how Jim Rohn was so right by saying “you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with” is the moment I realized I have to be deliberate in who I spend the most time with.

You have a choice when it comes to your relationships if you don’t want to make them worse:

  • Improve them;
  • Keep them as is; or
  • Leave them.

A lot of people instead choose to keep toxic relationships and never improve them.

Why is it so bad?

People can either uplift you or bring you down. Bad relationships drag you down. The more you accumulate them the farther down you get dragged.

My three brothers and I were raised the exact same way by our mother. Yet in high school, one went deep into drugs. Another was arrested for aggressive behaviour. The other one was kicked out of home for being disrespectful. My mom doesn’t do drugs, is very respectful, and certainly isn’t aggressive.

How did all four of us end up so different then? Simple, we hung out with different people in school. Today, we’ve grown and have learned to push our bad relationships aside, but a lot of people can’t do that, staying in subpar relationships.

How to unlearn that skill?

I believe so much in Jim Rohn’s quote that I wrote a full article on how to up your entourage. In that article, I talk about 10 strategies on how to surround yourself with people that uplift you instead of dragging you down. Here are the strategies:

  1. Find the good in people around you
  2. Join online groups of like-minded individuals
  3. Find mentors
  4. Read biographies
  5. Read blogs of people you admire
  6. Learn new skills
  7. Move somewhere else
  8. Work from a co-working space
  9. Work from a virtual co-working space
  10. Host people at home

This will bring you good relationships.

People like to blame others for their bad relationships, and sometimes it’s true, but becoming a good communicator is probably the most effective way of improving your current relationships. And that’s within your control.

If you have bad relationships, chances are you might not listen enough. In the resources below, be sure you check out Michael Thompson’s article on how to listen better.


My wife swears by this book: Crucial Conversions.

If you have to deal with negative people on a regular basis, read “4 Ways to Deal With Negative People”, by Brian Pennie.

If you need help with listening, check out “The Best Communicators Know When to Shut Up”, by Michael Thompson

Skill #6. Living paycheque-to-paycheque

“The love of money is the root of all evil. The lack of money is the root of all evil.” — Robert Kiyosaki

I learned about the importance of good financial education recently, which means, late in life. But at least now I know. Sadly, many people still live paycheque-to-paycheque, hoping their ends will meet. Recycle that every month for 45 years of their lives.

Why is it so bad?

Living paycheque-to-paycheque is scary! The fear of not being able to afford our basic needs because a cheque takes too long to come in is real.

And, even worse, what if that paycheque never comes at all because you lose your job?

Living like that is a reactive life. Being reactive frequently is not a situation you want to be in often. As much as possible, in anything, you want to avoid having too many urgent things to do. Being reactive is certainly not productive or proactive.

You want to have some certainty that, if something were to happen, you’re not stuck in reactive mode all the time.

How to unlearn that skill?

In the resources section, I link to two books that completely changed my perspective on money, how to acquire it, and how to retain it.

Also in that section, I mention seven skills you can learn relatively fast that will change your wealth forever. These skills are Accounting, Investing, Marketing, Sales, Law, Copywriting, and Public Relations. Learn these and you’ll be able to take ownership of your finances.

Also, refer to Skill #2 from this list. The more self-aware and productive you are, the easier it is to focus on important over urgent tasks.


In “Learn and Grow Rich — 7 Skills of Wealthy People”, I go a lot deeper on how you can counter this very unproductive skill of living paycheque-to-paycheque.

Other incredible resources are Rich Dad Poor Dad, by Robert Kiyosaki, and Unshakeable, by Tony Robbins.

Skill #7. Saying “I can’t”

“Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.” — Henry Ford

Here’s a recent story that happened to me:

A few months ago, a highly intelligent friend of mine invited me to collaborate on a project with him and other people smarter than I. He recently admitted that at first, he didn’t think I could do it. And I knew this was out of my league. But I don’t know the words “I can’t”, so I did.

What was the end result? I figured out how I can be in the same league in my own way. During the process, when doubt started to reappear, I figured out a new “how”. “I can’t” was out of the question.

Why is it so bad?

“I can’t” is the root of all your procrastination. And procrastination is based on fear. So many people want to fight procrastination, yet don’t manage to do it because of their self-talk.

We all know procrastination is a bad habit, but saying “I can’t” deepens other bad habits as well. Someone who believes they can, really can.

How to unlearn that skill?

This is probably the easiest skill of all to unlearn, at least in theory:

Change “I can’t” for “How can I…”.

Once you know how, it’s up to you to decide if it’s worth your time, but it can certainly be done if it’s a focus of yours. It’s perfectly okay to know how you can do something and do nothing about it. That’s called prioritization. It’s a skill of champions.

If you want an 80/20 (Pareto principle) to get rid of procrastination, simply change your self-talk. Drop all negativity from your vocabulary. Add extra incentive, like giving money to people every time you catch yourself saying something negative. Involve your family so they can monitor you.

In your journal, write down things you’ve always wanted to do and didn’t do it because you thought it was outside your means to do it. Now change your self-talk and think deeply about how you can make it happen. Trust me, there are solutions to every problem. It may not be easy and may take time, but pretty much anything is possible!


For a more in-depth look at thoughts and how powerful they are, read Thinking Is A Powerful Tool, But Also A Burden, by Brian Pennie. Also by Pennie, read How to Find Your True Self.

Skill #8. Stopping Education after graduation

“We spend the first year of a child’s life teaching it to walk and talk and the rest of its life to shut up and sit down. There’s something wrong there.” — Neil deGrasse Tyson

Here’s the thing: Education starts once you’re out of school because truthfully, “real world” only starts then. You better realize that sooner than later.

Who’s guilty of only learning new skills on the job?

Somehow, a lot of people think that after graduation, they won’t have a need for learning new skills and they’ll be set for life. It’s such a problem that we’re stuck up doing what we went to school for even if we hate it. Part of it is fear of what others would say, and part of it because we don’t want to have wasted precious time.

Well, you’re wasting even more time doing something you simply hate doing!

Why is it so bad?

Now you’re stuck with skills that may not even be valuable for any other jobs than the one you’re currently in. If that job doesn’t exist anymore, good luck finding another job without learning new skills prior. That’s a terrible loop to be in.

And we all know how fast the world is changing now. Many have seen their jobs replaced by machines. Guys, this is only the beginning! Charles Darwin said that those who survive are those who adapt. Others get extinct.

You don’t want to just survive anyway, do you? You want to thrive, right?

How to unlearn that skill?

When people see my morning routine, they think I’m crazy. Here’s last month’s routine:

While more than 90 percent of people start going to their work somewhere between 8am to 10am, I’m working on my self-improvement.

I basically have five hours dedicated to learning before I even start working!

Some people may not see writing as learning, but they’d so so wrong. 90 percent of learning actually happens when you teach others. It’s potentially the greatest “hack” when it comes to learning new things.

Gym time is great for both my physical health, but also for light learning. It’s when I listen to podcasts and learn a ton on subjects I might be incredibly familiar with.

The blocks in yellow are my practice time for the skills I want to deliberately learn that month. I spend 30 minutes on each daily. During breakfast, I usually eat while reading a book.

My point here is not to mimic what I’m doing, and especially not the time I wake up. Find what works for you, but make sure you dedicate time to at least keep yourself relevant in an ever-changing world.

Always make it part of your routine to keep learning outside of work.


Check out SkillUp Academy and the varied training sessions on Youtube.

Otherwise, I have too many good resources to list here, but here are four of my favourites articles on the subject:


Not all skills are created equal. We like to think that all skills are good for you, but some really aren’t. The problem is, it’s much easier to learn than unlearn.

If you have not acquired the skills above, great. Don’t learn them!

If you have acquired some of the skills above, take it seriously. If you can get rid of them, you will become smarter, more self-aware, wealthier, and happier.

Don’t you want that?

You can do this!

Thanks for reading, sharing, and following! :)

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Danny Forest

Written by

Viking Polymath writing for today’s knowledge economy, building a more skillful tomorrow. https://skillup-academy.com

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