We’ve all known that person who always seems to be getting
Whether a friend or a colleague, this is the person whose work is
always done early. The one who somehow manages to finish
hour-long tasks in 20 minutes.
The one people describe as a robot or machine, because surely no
simple human could work as quickly as they do.
And yet these people exist, cranking away at maximum efficiency.
What do these highly productive people have in common? How
do they do it?
The habits of highly productive people
It’s tempting to look at highly productive people as machines (or wizards).
But by studying how they work efficiently and overcome the challenges we
all experience, it’s possible to boost your own productivity as well.
How do the most efficient people overcome challenges like:
• Procrastinating on tasks—both small, nagging ones and large,
• Boring work that needs just to get done
• Responding to email and other messages while working
• Staying motivated and energized throughout the entire work day
• Focusing and finishing the most important projects on their plates
Increase productivity and become highly efficient with these habits:
• Focus on most important tasks first
• Cultivate deep work
• Keep a distraction list to stay focused
• Use the Eisenhower Matrix to identify long-term priorities
• Use the 80/20 rule
• Break tasks into smaller pieces
• Take breaks
• Make fewer decisions
• Eliminate inefficient communication
• Find repeatable shortcuts
• Learn from successes as well as mistakes
• Plan for when things go wrong
• Work before you get motivated or inspired
• Don’t multitask
• Fill the tank — recharge
• Sharpen the axe
• Manage your energy (not just time)
• Get better at saying “no
Focus on most important tasks (MITs) first
You probably didn’t go to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — but an MIT can
help you be more productive.
The theory behind Most Important Tasks is that any given to-do list has some tasks
that are more important than others. If you focus on simply checking off to-do list
items, you’ll end up with a mix of important and less important tasks completed.
It also exposes you to the potential for procrastination — it’s easy to spend the whole
day checking off easy, less important to-dos instead of buckling down on the hard stuff.
Instead, spend a few minutes at the beginning of your day to choose 1–3 MITs — the
things that, no matter what, you need to finish by the end of the day.
With a renewed focus on what’s important, it’s easier to create a meaningful to-do list
— make sure the important things get done.
Cultivate deep work
Some tasks are just hard. There’s no substitute for deep work.
Everybody has a few daily to-dos that could be almost be knocked out while sleeping.
These are the tasks that you need podcasts to get through — if anything, they’re hard
to get yourself to do because they’re not especially interesting.
At the same time, some tasks are just difficult. You can’t multitask your way to
finishing them. You need to devote serious time and mental effort to knocking them
out of the park. These tasks are called “deep work.”
Cal Newport wrote about this type of work in his bestselling book, Deep Work: Rules
for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Newport argues that the skill of intense
focus is increasingly rare—and that those who can master it are at an enormous
A few of Newport’s recommendations to cultivate
deep work are:
• Schedule deep work: Plan deep work into your schedule at a similar time every
day, probably in the morning. Having a regular time to do deep work helps you
make it a habit.
• Get bored: It sounds counterintuitive to call being bored a productive
habit, but being comfortable with boredom is important. Deep work
isn’t always enjoyable, and boredom or frustration are what cause us to
seek out distractions. Avoid using social media for entertainment as
much as possible, and get more comfortable doing nothing.
• Be harder to contact: Email and other distractions can be reduced by
asking people who contact you to do more work up front. Ask people to
research their questions before coming to you, and provide as much info
as possible in their emails. Same goes for you—spending time on
communications instead of dashing off a quick email can minimize back
• Know your work habits: Do you work best in isolation? With periodic
breaks? Are you working around a hectic schedule? You don’t need to
overhaul your entire schedule—just set aside some time for deep work.
Highly productive people have mastered the skill of deep work.
Keep a distraction list to stay focused
With emails, social media, and a thousand little to-dos, it’s easy to get distracted when you’re trying to be productive.
Whether you’re trying to focus on deep work or just dealing with smaller tasks, distractions are the bane of productivity.
It’s hard to maintain efficient work habits with distractions around.
One powerful method of reducing distractions is creating a “distraction list.”
Keep this list — whether it’s a Google Doc or a physical piece of paper — nearby while you’re working. Whenever a
distracting thought pops up, write it down on the list and get back to work.
This technique, which is one of the secrets to the Pomodoro Technique, is powerful because a lot of the time your
distractions legitimately require attention.
If I’m doing deep work and suddenly remember a bill that needs to be paid, or have an idea for a new blog post, those are
thoughts that deserve attention.
They just don’t deserve it right now.
As thoughts arise during your work, jot them down. Once you reach a break in your work, you can come back and either
tackle them or add them to your larger to-do list.
Use the Eisenhower Matrix to identify long-term priorities
One of the dangers of productivity is a focus on the short term. As management
legend Peter Drucker once said, “there is nothing so useless as doing efficiently
that which should not be done at all.” When you study productivity habits, it’s
easy to fall into that trap.
On any given work day, it’s easy to get caught up in things that seem important
The Eisenhower Matrix, used by Dwight Eisenhower to make decisions during
his time as a general, was popularized by Stephen Covey’s book The 7 Habits of
Highly Effective People. It helps you to quickly determine what you should work
on and what you should ignore.
To create an Eisenhower Matrix, make a 2 x 2 square. On one axis, write
“important” and “not important.” On the other, “urgent” and “not urgent.”
Use the 80/20 rule
Another way to prioritize tasks comes from the 80/20 principle.
Discovered by Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, the 80/20 rule (also
called the Pareto Principle) states that, in any pursuit, 80% of the results
will come from 20% of the efforts.
To maximize efficiency, highly productive people identify the most
important 20% of their work. Then, they look at ways to cut down the
other 80% of their schedule, to find more time for the things that make
the biggest impact.
Break tasks into smaller pieces
Why do you procrastinate?
There are a variety of reasons that people procrastinate, but one of the most
important is that the tasks on their to-do list just seem too daunting.
If you have to-do list items that are large in scope and not very specific, tackling
those tasks becomes challenging. You look at the item and think “I don’t even
know where to start.”
You can start by breaking large to-dos into smaller to-dos. Set small goals for each
If I have a to-do list item labeled “write a blog post on productivity,” it’s easy to
(ironically) put it off — because there are a few different places I could start.
What if I broke that larger task into smaller chunks? Instead of “write a blog
about productivity,” an example of my to-do list could be:
• Look up keywords related to productivity and good, efficient habits
• Read the top 10 Google results on productivity
• Brainstorm other methods to become more productive
• Organize the ideas I’ve found or thought of into an outline
• Jot down any specific thoughts on each tactic using bullet points
• Go through my bullet points one at a time, to flesh them out into full sections
• My larger to-do item has become six smaller tasks. Sure, that makes my to-do
list longer, but it also helps me get things done faster — and I don’t have to
think about where to start.
Each item on my list is incredibly specific. All I have to do is tackle them in
order. The result is the blog post you’re reading right now.
Nobody, not even highly productive people, can focus for eight hours straight. It simply isn’t possible.
No matter how many efficient habits you build, you can’t maintain distraction-free focus for that long.
That’s why taking breaks is so important (and research shows it makes people more productive).
Even breaks that are just a few minutes long can help you recharge and come up with new ideas.
Be proactive about taking breaks. When you take breaks, it’s important to make them structured and
deliberate. It’s easy to justify distractions as “taking a break.” But if you don’t have that break time
scheduled, it’s possible that you’re actually just getting distracted.
Methods like the Pomodoro Technique can help. The Pomodoro Technique suggests 25 minute blocks
of work, with short 5 minute breaks. You work intensely for a specific amount of time, followed by
intentionally not working for a shorter amount of time.
Scheduling breaks can keep you fresh and productive throughout an entire day.
Make fewer decisions (about things that aren’t important)
While he was President, Barack Obama once told Vanity Fair that he never makes a decision about what
“You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” [Obama] said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want
to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”
Some decisions are important. Most aren’t. If you want to be more productive, consider outsourcing or
eliminating everyday decisions.
Other highly productive people have made similar comments about their own efficient habits. Author
and entrepreneur Ramit Sethi has what he calls “Ramit’s Book Buying Rule:”
“If you’re thinking about buying a book, just buy it. Don’t waste five seconds debating it. Even one idea
makes it more than worth the price.”
If you’re trying to decide between two books to read, Sethi would say: “read them both.” There’s no point
on wasting your decision-making energy on the unimportant
Find repeatable shortcuts — automate tasks
What are some ways you can find shortcuts? Here are a few potential examples:
• Put together standard operating procedures for common tasks, so you can quickly
follow checklists instead of working from scratch
• Delegate tasks to interns or other employees where appropriate. (Just make sure you
follow up with and update your team regularly.)
• Learn simple keyboard shortcuts that come up often. I like using “command + shift + t”
to open a recently closed tab, or “command + option + 2” to create a heading in Google
• Increase your typing speed — it seems obvious, but the difference between 60 and 90
words per minutes is huge. A game like Typeracer can help (warning: it’s addictive).
• Use technology to take care of repetitive tasks
• Repetitive tasks are great candidates for shortcuts, delegation, or automation. Knocking
them off your schedule can save you lots of time and energy.
Learn from successes as well as mistakes
One of the challenges of highly productive people is ensuring that fast work is also good work.
When you’re working quickly, you open yourself up to making mistakes. Highly productive people
tackle that risk by learning and improving at every possible moment — so that producing good work
Learning from mistakes is obvious (although of course valuable). When something goes wrong,
analyzing the mistakes and looking for ways to prevent them is a massively valuable learning
As important, and much less common, is learning from successes. When something goes well, why?
When you have a success, it can be tempting to pop the champagne and start celebrating. And don’t
get me wrong — it’s good to celebrate your successes.
But successes deserve every bit as much scrutiny as failures.
Highly productive people make the most of successes by figuring
out how to repeat them. What went well and why? What should
you take from this experience and use again? Are there elements
of a successful project that weren’t as effective and can be
Asking these questions helps you go from one success to
repeated successes. It also helps you understand your successes
on a more intuitive level — which saves you time whenever you
sit down to work on a new project.
Plan for when things go wrong
It happens to everyone. You have big plans for today — it’s going to
be your most productive day yet — but then little fires start popping
up and demanding your attention.
Whether your furnace breaks and you need to call a repairman, a
last minute meeting pops up, or you forgot to schedule in time for
lunch — sometimes things go wrong.
Highly productive people acknowledge the planning fallacy: The fact
that everyone underestimates how long it will take to finish tasks.
Research on the planning fallacy shows that a lot of the reason for
this misestimation is that we forget to take into account tasks or
responsibilities that aren’t yet on our calendars.
Have you ever tried to schedule a meeting and thought “let’s do this
next week, next week looks more open?” But then next week comes
around and it’s just as busy as always.
Highly productive people are better at realizing that next week only
seems open because you haven’t scheduled it yet. By planning for
interruptions and creating contingency plans, highly productive
people can adapt quickly when unplanned problems present
Work before you get motivated or inspired
A lot of people looking to get more productive habits talk
about needing to get inspired or motivated. Highly
productive people instead focus on getting started —
whether they’re motivated or not.
In her classic book Bird by Bird, author Anne Lamott gives
this advice to aspiring writers: look through a one-inch
What does that mean?
It means that you don’t need to tackle everything at once. When you are
having trouble getting motivated, it’s often because you are looking at the
massive scope of a project.
That’s intimidating. It’s hard to get started when faced with the enormity of
Lamott tells writers not to worry about inspiration or motivation. Just start
writing in the smallest possible way. Even if you need to start by describing
your own shoes, getting words — any words — on the page is the first step.
The same applies to your work — even if you’re not a
If you feel overwhelmed or find yourself procrastinating,
look through a one-inch picture frame. Start doing
something — like breaking the task into smaller chunks
— and you’ll find it easier to keep going.
Taking action is what leads to motivation, which in turn
leads to more action. Highly productive people don’t wait
for motivation — they start working and the motivation
Fill the tank — recharge
Productivity tactics, email templates, and prioritization are valuable methods of improving your
But they won’t help if you aren’t taking care of yourself.
Highly productive people spend time recharging. That means getting enough sleep every night,
exercising, and eating healthy.
If you aren’t thinking straight or have trouble focusing, take a look at your personal habits. I
know that 7 or 8 hours of sleep just isn’t enough for me — I really need closer to 9, and missing
out on sleep affects my productivity for days.
Sleep. Exercise. Eat well. Get outside and soak up some sunshine. Taking care of your healthy
habits is a crucial part of efficient work habits.
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