Do ‘Productivity Hacks’ Work?

Photo courtesy Craig Garner via Unsplash

The world of self-help is full of so-called “productivity hacks.” Not all methods work for everybody.

By Wendy Webb

Have you eaten a frog today? If not, you and your employees might not be getting the most out of the workday.

Of course, no one is suggesting business leaders eat an actual frog. The expression refers to the saying coined by Mark Twain that if you eat a live frog every morning, you can rest assured that nothing worse is going to happen for the rest of the day.

Translation: Taking care of the most unpleasant task on a to-do list is the best way to be productive the rest of the day. The method, developed by personal development guru and author Brian Tracy, is thought of as a “productivity hack,” a trick to help workers fight off distraction and get things done.

Another productivity hack is the “Pomodoro Technique.” Named after those tomato-shaped kitchen timers, the technique involves setting a timer for 25 minutes, during which workers dedicate intense focus to a task. No emails, no text messages — just focus. After 25 minutes, take a break. The idea is that periods of intense focus followed by short breaks are the most effective way to be productive.

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld has also been credited with creating a productivity method. “Don’t Break The Chain” involves a calendar and a red marker. Set a goal. When you accomplish it, mark the date on the calendar with a big red “X.” Pretty soon, you’ll have a visual chain — and the threat of breaking it will drive you to finish each day’s goal.

With productivity hacks aplenty, which are worth trying? Experts are split on if these methods are worthwhile, while others offer hacks of their own.

“I’ve seen the Pomodoro Technique recommended many times, but neither I nor my clients have ever found it to be practical in actually saving time or getting more done,” said Indigo Ocean Dutton, who trains business owners without dedicated HR departments to achieve companywide goals.

Throw out the kitchen timer, Dutton said, and try this: “Make sure that what you’re doing each day actually adds up to the achievement of your primary objectives.”

To do this, sit down and clarify your primary objectives for a given period of time, say a quarter. Then, break those objectives into smaller performance goals. What would moving the needle look like for each outcome? Afterward, select the tasks that will lead to achieving each goal. Finally, track results.

“Basically, make sure that what you’re doing each day directly contributes to specific outcome goals that are your top priorities,” Dutton said.

Chavaz Kingman, owner of training firm AYF Consulting, similarly disavows popular productivity methods.

“I have found that most so-called productivity methods cannot sustain clients or their staff for the marathon that is success,” Kingman said. “Having tried everything from reminders and apps, songs and sounds, notebooks and notepads, I discovered that all productivity is rooted in the phrase: ‘I Will.’ ”

Kingman instead teaches managers and executives to tap into the strength of their own will power. “When you can access the strength of your own will, then productivity becomes natural as you outline processes and time frames in which you must achieve your own ‘I Will’ statement,” Kingman said.

Jo-Ann Sloan, a trainer for the National Association of Realtors, said the distractions that come with technology can be our own worst enemy when it comes to productivity. That’s why she uses “RescueTime,” an app that tracks how much time users spend doing different tasks on a computer.

“Unproductive habits, such as excessive hours on social media sites or online shopping, can be spotted and changed,” Sloan said.

For those easily distracted by technology and communication, Sloan said it’s best to just turn things off.

“It is not necessary to answer every single phone call, email or Facebook post the red hot second it arrives,” Sloan said. “The interruption often halts momentum. Unless the incoming communication pertains to a deal where time is of the essence, wait to respond and finish the task at hand.”

Helene Segura, a productivity consultant and author of “The Inefficiency Assassin,” said productivity methods work, but there’s often not a one-size-fits-all option. For instance, she said most of the productivity models out there are geared for left-brain, analytical and sequential thinkers.

“The rest of the world with different learning styles has a hard time relating to and understanding those models,” Segura said. “They get frustrated and quit after a couple of days.”

Bottom line: For people to learn how to be more productive, they must have the desire to become more productive. If only there was a hack for that.


Wendy Webb is a freelance journalist based in Minnesota.