Originally published by Stephen Guise on his personal website.
Productivity is defined as “the quality, state, or fact of being able to generate, create, enhance, or bring forth goods and services.”
A simpler definition that we tend to use? Getting things done.
But I think the more complicated definition is better, because it reveals important nuances of productivity. One of those nuances is that language “being able to…” A key factor of productivity is ability, and there’s a spectrum. I’m able to swim well, but Michael Phelps is able to swim really fast.
Productivity = Effort x Ability
I swam competitively for 12 years, but my ability was never even close to that of Olympic Champion Michael Phelps. On a scale of 1–10, if my swimming ability is a 4, then Phelps’ ability is a 10.
Thus, if we both put forth full effort (10), according to the formula above, my score is 40 to his 100. Do the math — he’d still smoke me in a race even if I tried twice as hard as him.
This example highlights ability as the critical factor of productivity. Elite athletes so hard to defeat because their ability is almost always around 10/10, so when they put in a full 10/10 effort, they will win just about every time. The same concept applies to productivity.
Most of us spend a lot of time working (effort) and too little time improving how we approach work (ability). Even broader than work, I think we do this in life! We spend a lot of time “living” and being “so busy.” But how much time do we spend optimizing our practices, strategizing our routines, planning for our needs, and simply taking care of ourselves?
This article contains rare productivity practices because it focuses on skills and preparation, two things that are done outside of actual work sessions. While these things will always seem like minor details or even inconsequential, they usually bring the highest ROI (Return On Investment)!
Why Skills and Preparation Beat Effort
Ability = Skills x Preparation
Ability can be broken down into skills and preparation. That is, how skilled are you at the task, and how prepared are you to execute? I want to briefly explain why skills and preparation matter more than effort and “in session” productivity tricks. It goes back to the formula. Effort is a variable just like skills and preparation, but they all behave very differently. Here’s the formula.
Productivity = Effort x (Skills x Preparation)
- Effort (1–10): Your effort can be 1 on Tuesday and 10 on Wednesday. It can and does vary wildly for various reasons.
- Skills (current training level): Your skills are going to be the level to which you’ve trained, no more and no less. I can’t go from a zero on the piano one day to Chopin the next day. That would take years of practice. I also won’t regress quickly if I’ve built up the skill.
- Preparation (0–3): The normal score for preparation is one, and that simply means that you’re basically ready and able to perform your skills to your current ability. If you take PEDs, then maybe your preparation goes to two. Cheater! Haha, for real though, caffeine is a PED for productivity. It doesn’t increase your skills, but it does temporarily amplify your energy state and mental acuity, which increases your overall ability. This is one reason I don’t consume caffeine — I don’t want temporary boosts and dependence, I want permanent improvement and independence. In this formula, preparation can go below one, which means it can dramatically affect productivity.
The problem with focusing on effort or PEDs is their temporal nature. Your productivity today might be at the cost of being productive tomorrow (from fatigue or withdrawal). But if you focus on skill-building, you’ll permanently increase your skill score, which will always multiply your efforts, whatever they may be! And if you take a long-term approach to preparation, you’ll multiply your skills and efforts even further!
So the question is, “What are some of the most critical skills and preparation practices for greater productivity?”
Practice #1: Get Excellent Sleep and Nutrition
This is obvious when read in an article, but not always practiced and not always recognized as a factor in real life. Who pursues sleep as a strategy for improving their work? Not many. Who thinks about their lunch in terms of varying fuel quality for their brain this afternoon? Not many.
Based on their behavior, most people think they can short themselves on sleep and eat whatever they want and still perform like champions. They continue to believe it only because they haven’t experienced their true potential. Try improving your sleep quality and length and your diet for awhile and you’ll see the difference. When I stopped eating fast food in college, I stopped falling asleep in class (for the first time in my life).
Here’s a crude example: How do you stop the greatest basketball player in the world? Be it prime Michael Jordan or some mythically good player who has perfect skills, how can you stop them? Easily. Simply withhold water from them for two days. They’ll be so dehydrated and weak that they won’t be able to do much of anything, let alone play basketball. Elite skills + no water = failure.
A severely dehydrated athlete could still provide 10 in effort and have level 10 skills, but without water, their preparation is a 0, which nullifies everything else. (Effort is not a measure of what you can do, it’s a measure of how hard you try, and trying hard with no strength will look no different than not trying.)
Dehydrated Player: Productivity = Effort (10) x (Skills  x Preparation ) = ZERO (please send him to the hospital)
Sleep and nutrition are the foundational preparation for all of life.
Preparation is a sliding scale, and many people in the world are operating at something like a 0.5 or 0.25 score in their preparation (possibly using caffeine to get closer to one). That means they’re only getting 1/4 or 1/2 the results from their efforts and skills as they should be getting with basic sleep and nutrition! Adding an extra point to preparation goes a lot further than adding a point to effort.
Ben Franklin famously said, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Similarly, we could say, “An ounce of preparation is worth a pound of caffeine.” It might not translate perfectly with dosage, but you get the point.
Practice #2: Meditate (Focus Practice)
Meditation has a lot of benefits. For productivity, the clear benefit of meditation is improved focus, not through voodoo meditation magic, but because meditation improves your focusing skill. The act of moving your attention from distracted thoughts back to your breaths will prepare you to move your attention back to your work.
Focusing is the single most important skill for being productive. It’s such a simple concept — paying full attention to what you’re doing — but it’s one of those things that’s simple to understand and difficult to master. Any progress made in this area will pay huge dividends throughout your life. Meditation is the best way to directly practice focusing that I’m aware of.
Practice #3: Refine Your Processes
Life is comprised of various processes. Processes within your body, processes of nature, processes of society, and processes of your actions. The cool thing about processes is that they’re reliable. You can typically expect the same result if you follow the same process.
What does this mean for your life? Pay attention to the processes you follow and the results they bring! If your day always seems to start poorly or slowly, then take a close look at your morning routine. That’s the process responsible for those results!
Athletes are yet again a great example because of their various routines (processes) that get them ready to perform. Athletes are some of the most ritualistic people you’ll meet because rituals are processes, and any athlete worth his or her salt must respect the process if they are to succeed.
What processes should I look at?
You don’t necessarily have to look for problem areas. Good processes can be improved further. For example, I used to exercise by alternating basketball and random weight lifting (of all muscle groups), and sessions like that could last up to two hours. I was in pretty good shape, and there was nothing wrong with it, but I wasn’t getting much stronger. When I switched my process to focused, shorter sessions of just weightlifting with targeted muscle groups (push, pull, legs) always followed by a protein shake, results came faster even though I worked out for less time. I improved an already beneficial process, and now think back to the equation. Since this process greatly increased my preparation score, I can apply less effort for better results.
See the distinction here? I could have doubled my workout time or effort under the old process and still been disappointed, because the process was not ideal for my goal of getting stronger. Since I optimized the process, I was able to work less and get better results!
Look at your processes/routines for exercise, eating, grooming, mornings, bedtime, working, and emailing and ask yourself, “Is the process I’m using most optimized for the result I want to achieve?” If you find even one small tweak to improve the process, the beneficial effect will compound!
Practice #4: Set Up Strategic Conditionals (If ____ Happens, Then I Will ____)
Life is not linear or predictable. It’s a crazy, wavy line that bounces around in ways you might not expect. Your job is to try to direct the craziness in the general direction you desire. To do that, you need to both anticipate what could happen and what you’re going to do about it. This is preparation.
Let me give you an example of not doing this that has negatively affected me. I’ve been going to the gym very frequently — about 5 days per week — for full, intense workouts. But I’ve run into three unplanned situations. Here’s how I handled them.
I got a sinus infection [failure].
I was sick, and didn’t work out. I’m okay with not working out while sick, but my definition of “sick” was extremely fuzzy. Because of my vague definition of sick, I skipped working out on a few days that, looking back, I shouldn’t have. One could say a few days missed won’t hurt, but that’s a wrong and dangerous perspective. Every day counts for a lot. Every decision makes a difference. Small choices matter because they set a precedent for the rest of your life.
Am I going to be world class consistent or am I going to meddle in mediocrity because I’m not prepared? In this case, I chose the latter, and I intend to improve upon that! Now I have a clearer idea of what I expect to do depending on how I feel.
- If I am feverish, I’m not doing anything.
- If I have sniffles but feel I am on the upswing, I expect to walk or do some other kind of light exercise.
- If I feel myself again and just have nagging post-sickness symptoms, I will work out as usual.
With a clear plan of “if X, then Y,” sickness won’t derail me for long. If it’s a long-term or complicated illness, I expect myself to define my exercise expectations based on the specific illness.
I drank wine [failure].
After I drink alcohol, I can usually feel it (negatively) on some level the same or next day. Since I had not decided how alcohol would fit into my fitness plans, after drinking, it was easy to delay working out until when I felt “completely fresh.” This caused me to miss a few days that I didn’t want to miss. I was able to exercise, but unable to respond to a spontaneous excuse I hadn’t prepared for.
I injured my pinky finger [success].
Here’s one where I got it right. I jammed my pinky finger playing basketball just yesterday. The top and middle joint have a beautiful purple hue and the finger is swollen. In this state, I am both unable and unwilling to grip significant weight with the finger, due to pain and risk of reinjury. This severely limits my options in the weight room.
I’m not sure when exactly I decided it, but I operate under the expectation that even when I’m injured, I can find a way to exercise. Seeing a girl with a full cast on her leg outwork almost everyone else in the gym on a recent cruise only solidified that view. Injury is rarely an excuse to be completely inactive because of the many ways we can exercise.
After 2.5 hours of basketball yesterday, my legs were jello, my thigh was bruised, and my right hand pinky was out of order. With my upper and lower body needing to rest and heal, I worked my core. Success!
Lastly, consider this: if you have a conditional set up in your mind, then when X happens, not only are you less likely to derail, but you’re more likely to take positive action because you pre-created the intent to act by saying, “if X happens, I will Y.”
Practice #5: Expand Your Definition of Productivity
If you generate good feelings and good health, that’s productive on a lifewide level. That is to say that even the activity I typically badmouth, watching TV, can be productive if you need the break!
Workaholics are practically worshipped in many societies, but they miss out on their true potential. If you’re not well rested, your performance suffers. This is a non-debatable limitation of humans. Some research suggests that of the typical 8-hour workday, people only work for about three hours. Yes, THREE. The human brain is a well-designed machine, and it will take breaks to cool off as needed. In the real world, this means we probably work a lot less than we think we do.
The problem with working your brain too hard is inefficiency. Do you really think the time spent browsing Facebook to burn time is as rejuvenating as lounging on your couch or bed watching your favorite show? Of course not, because one is pretending to work and the other is intentional rest.
The Inefficient Workaholic Cycle
- Work hard (100% depletion = zero energy left)
- Pretend to keep working as you stalk people on Facebook (10% recovery)
- Work exhaustedly with your meager energy
- Pretend to keep working as you check your phone (even though you didn’t hear the notification sound)
This desperate attempt to “keep working” often continues because of poor work quality (due to exhaustion). Here’s a better cycle.
The Efficient Work Cycle
- Work hard (100% depletion)
- Relax just as hard (100% recovery)
- Work (100% depletion)
- Relax (100% recovery)
Work hard. Relax hard. One of my favorite things to do is what I call the “Work and Play Carousel,” in which I’ll alternate an hour or two of work with a similar time of rest and relaxation.
Improving your productivity is rarely a matter of putting in more effort. It’s often a matter of working smarter, building key skills like focusing, preparing yourself for different situations, and simply taking care of yourself. I hope this article helps you tackle your work days in a smarter way!