How to Be Productive: 10 Ways to Actually Work Smarter
A while back I wrote an email to myself with my own personal rules on how to be productive. It distills all the lessons I’ve learned throughout the years about productivity and working smarter. That email serves as a constant reminder when I am feeling unproductive or things are just not working out the way they should.
Here are my 10 commandments on how to be productive so you can start working smarter instead of harder:
#1 Focus on Systems Instead of Goals
We are taught from an early age to pursue goals: get good grades, be in the starting team of a sport, get promoted at your job. You work as hard as you can and you’ll hopefully achieve your goal.
However, most goals are out of our control. We have a limited control to reach it. We don’t control the future, other people’s actions, the economy or the environment, among many other variables. And that’s exactly why our focus should be on systems rather than goals. In a system, you focus is on all the parts that you do control.
“System” is a fancy word for “repeatable process”. Getting 500 subscribers in your blog is a goal, writing 500 words a day is a repeatable process. Running a marathon is a goal, running 4 days a week for 30 minutes is a repeatable process. Losing ten pounds is a goal, upgrading your diet to eat healthier every meal is a system.
Reward effort instead of achievement: small gains compound over time.
And that leads us to the beauty of the compound effect…
#2 Leverage the Compound Effect
“Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. He who understands it, earns it … he who doesn’t … pays it.” — Albert Einstein
Compound interest is a concept from finance and economics, which refers to the addition of interest to the main initial deposit. It’s interest on interest.Assuming a 10% growth rate and a $100 initial deposit, you get $110 in the first month, $121 in the second and ~$133 in the third. Your gains keep growing on top: $10 for the first month, $11 on the second, and $13 on the third.
But there are many applications to the compound effect than just finance. It impacts almost all areas of your life. When you focus on developing systems and work every day, your work compounds over time, developing exponential growth.
Let’s take knowledge as an example. If you read a couple of pages per day, you will start making connections between the books and its lessons.
“Read 500 pages like this every day. That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest.” — Warren Buffett
If you publish a couple of posts per week soon you’ll have a full catalog of articles that your readers can enjoy, opening more ways to find you or spend more time on your website.
If you automate one task per week at your job, you free up time to focus on more important activities that generate output. And as you optimize tasks, you become better and faster at doing so, since you can use your previous knowledge and solutions to new problems.
The more advantages you create, the more your next advantages pay off. A1% gain every day compounds to almost 38x increase over a year.
#3 Track and Measure Output, Not Input
The third golden rule of how to be productive is to focus on the output, rather than the input. In rule #1, I made a case that systems are the best way to progress since they reward effort and we control all the variables. However, we need to have a sense of direction in those efforts, to know what we are trying to accomplish.
Writing daily with no objective is just practice. If you want to achieve something, you need to commit to a certain output, like publishing a post on your blog weekly. At the end of the day, a system is a way to control how to achieve an output.
Think of output as your “finished product” and how that relates to your system. Writing every day is a system, articles/books are the output.
Keep in mind that output differs from goals since we control all the variables. A goal for your blog might be to get 500 subscribers in a month, but you don’t really control who sign-ups. You only control the flow of new posts, for example.
Getting a promotion is a goal. You don’t control your boss. You can, however, be so good they can’t ignore you: your objective can be to deliver ten projects in the next three months. Now you control all the variables.
Knowing the difference between outcomes and goals is key to set realistic and attainable objectives. In return, you’ll accomplish most of your goals without even trying.
But knowing just how to work is not enough to be more productive. You need to know what to focus your energy on. Which leads us into…
#4 Live by the 80/20 Rule
The Pareto Principle, also known as the 80/20 rule, is one of the mental models I keep referring back to almost daily in my life. It states:
“80% of the output or results will come from 20% of the input or action.” The little things are the ones that account for the majority of the results.
Use the 80/20 rule to constantly question yourself if your focus, time or money is on the things that generate the majority of the results:
- Are you focusing on the tasks that bring the most output?
- Do you spend time on all your clients equally or are you reserving most of it for the best clients that bring you the majority of revenue?
- Are most of your distractions coming from a couple of sources? Perhaps your phone or social media?
Once you figure out what’s exactly working, double down. For example:
The majority of subscribers of my productivity hacking community comes from a couple of sources (out of 20+ channels I’ve tested). Applying the 80/20 rule, I can put all of my time getting more subscribers from those channels.
When in doubt, use the 80/20 rule. It helps you gain clarity on what is truly important and uncover new findings.
Here’s one: 80% of your work in done in 20% of your time. For most people, that time is immediately after waking up. You need to take advantage of the first few hours of your day.
#5 Reserve Mornings for Deep Work
Our working memory, alertness, and concentration gradually improve a couple of hours after waking up, peaking at about mid-morning. This is our brain’s natural peak productivity period.
Take advantage of this state by scheduling your most important work for this period. Focus on performing Deep Work, meaning you get to work free of distraction for a long period of time.
You can use the Pomodoro Technique get into the state of flow: work for 25 minutes on a single task and then take a short break of 5 minutes. Make sure you do at least 3–4 blocks each morning. Once you have mastered 25 minutes of full focus, you can do “double-pomodoros”, working for 50 minutes straight and then taking a ten-minute break.
I normally start my mornings by doing 2–3 “double-pomodoros” writing (it’s happening right now) and normally end up with a brand new post done at the end of it. Some of them I publish, some of them I save to edit later, and some are just not that great and serve as practice (remember: focus on the system!).
If you get in the habit of performing Deep Work in the morning, even for just half an hour, your work will rapidly compound over time.
In the beginning, it might be hard stay focused for 25 minutes, but you’re effectively training your attention muscle. In today’s distracted world, that’s a crucial skill to have. Which leads us to…
#6 Remove Distractions
Being distracted is, obviously, the opposite of describing how to be productive. By adding white space to your life, you remove the distractions that stand in your way and move focus to work and what you want to do. By cultivating the need for less you end up achieving more. As the saying goes: “Inch by inch, it’s such a cinch. Yard by yard, it’s awfully hard.”
Distractions can be divided into three major groups: physical (i.e. possessions), intangible (i.e. technology), and people. Grab a pen and paper and list down distractions in your life for each of these three areas.
Physical distractions range from the clutter at your desk or having too many clothes, making it harder to choose an outfit in the morning. If you spend too much time watching television, the TV itself is a distraction.
Intangible distractions are notifications from your phone or random web browsing sessions without an end in mind. But it can also be convoluted appsand systems that take more time to manage than to do the actual work.
And, finally, people can be the annoying coworker who keeps interrupting your for “just five minutes of your time”, or that friend that you always give more than you receive. Communicate on your terms by defaulting to asynchronous communication, such as text and email. Take it from Elon Musk: “I do love email. Wherever possible I try to communicate asynchronously. I’m really good at email.”
Anything that interrupts your work when you are in Deep Work state and/or doesn’t contribute to the life you want to build classifies as a distraction.
Minimize distractions in your daily life in order to make progress in meaningful work. There’s nothing more annoying than “being on a roll” only to be distracted by a Facebook notification.
Step 1 start with being aware of your distractions. Once you have nailed that down, move on to removing them. Quit these bad habits by adding friction.
And for the things you can’t remove, you can try to automate them.
#7 Automate Repetitive Tasks
Smartphones today are millions of times more powerful than all of NASA’s combined computing in 1969 when we put a man on the moon. Technology has evolved extremely rapidly in the last few decades.
How to be more productive using technology? Use it to automate repetitivetasks. Start by listing down all the tasks that you have to do recurrently every week. Then find ways to automate them, either by using apps or building your own system. It doesn’t matter what you do, you’ll always have recurring tasks.
A common one across many industries? Email. According to a study of Carleton University, the “typical’’ knowledge worker spends a third of their workweek processing email. I built a GTD Gmail system which cut my time spent dealing with email to a few minutes a day. You can use other productive tricks such as using canned responses for replies you keep writing over and over again (and other Gmail tricks).
If you use spreadsheets a lot, Zapier is a good tool to use. It has thousands of automations connecting more than a thousand apps.
Even small automations make the difference: create templates you can reuse for standup meetings notes, one-on-one reviews, and presentations decks.
More automation means more time to focus on creative and productive work.
#8 Be Data-Driven
I am a big advocate that you should always make data-driven decisions. If you don’t, you choosing to go with your opinion with no facts to back it up. Jim Barksdale, the former CEO of Netscape, said it best:
“If we have data, let’s look at data. If all we have are our opinions, let’s go with mine.”
And being data-driven is not only for tech companies that switch to a new landing test based on AB test results. We can AB test our own life and find out the results and then adjust accordingly.
It starts by questioning everything: do I think this way because it’s my opinion/other people say so/it’s how the world works or because I’ve tested it?
In #5, I recommended reserving mornings to perform Deep Work. Truth is, this is the peak time for most of the people. But the keyword here is most. What if you are a night owl and get more done in the silence of the night? Or you find your energy levels are through the roof immediately after lunch? The only way to find out is to test the assumption.
But how do you test? You need to think like a scientist and follow the steps of scientific research:
- Start with the end goal of your experiment: find your peak-productivity time
- Now, you draw up a hypothesis: my peak-productivity time is from 9 AM to 11 AM. Your hypothesis must be testable and falsifiable. In other words, there must be a way to test your hypothesis and it can either be supported or rejected based on examining data
- Design the experiment: to find your peak time you can enter data into a spreadsheet on how you feel your energy level is from 1 to 10 every hour of the day for two weeks
- Now run the experiment and collect data
- Finally, analyze data and draw conclusions: look at your spreadsheet and compute results. In the end, you should be confident about the hours of the day that you are most productive
Here are a couple other experiments you can run in your personal life and see how it affects your productivity: drinking/not drinking caffeine, number of hours you sleep, exercise during the day, and number of hours worked.
Test, test, test, and find what works specifically for you. Growth comes from hard work and a little luck. Hyper-growth comes from testing.
#9 Delegate the Non-Essential
No one is the best at everything. By focusing on what you do best and delegating the rest, you optimize your productivity. Delegate everything that you’re not world class at or that someone can do better in a fraction of time or cost.
Unless you have to develop a new skill, it’s always better to find someone already skilled at something to complete that task.
I’m not great at design and would take me hours to get to a level of acceptable. A much better idea is to find someone who is skilled in design and leave it up to them. In my business, I keep the activities I am great at — writing, growth, data analysis — and outsource the rest.
To delegate efficiently, make sure you choose the right person for the job. They must have all the necessary skills and should be capable of doing the job. Be very specific about the finished product (the output) and provide clear step-by-step instructions on how to complete the task.
This also rings true in your personal life: invest in trading your money for time when the time it takes you to complete a task is more expensive than paying someone. This can mean cleaning your house, ironing your clothes, or even driving/transportation. Work on developing the skills you value — like cooking or learning to code — and seek help for the rest.
Focus on doing what moves the needle. Delegate the rest.
#10 The Struggle Is the Process
Some days are great, some days are good, some days are bad. And then there are some days that everything is horrible and you just want to go home and lie down staring at the ceiling and wondering what’s wrong with you and your life. We’ve all been there.
First pro tip: when you’re behind, go home early. Take some time to rest and come back energized the next day. Sometimes our brain solves the problems for us on its own.
And embrace the struggle: this is the space where breakthroughs come from. If you focus on systems, as per rule #1, you will make progress in the long run. In “The War of Art”, Steven Pressfield shares a great little nugget:
“Someone once asked Somerset Maugham if he wrote on a schedule or only when struck by inspiration. “I write only when inspiration strikes,” he replied. “Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”
And when you finally find something that works, it’s a magical time. But no one is going to clap. So you must do it for yourself. Learn to enjoy the small victories — whether it’s 100 new subscribers, finishing a small project, or having a really productive day. Rewards are great, but the journey can also be awesome.
The struggle is what brings you forward.