by Niall Doherty

How to get the most out of this list

There’s a good chance you’re procrastinating just by reading this. But you’re reading about productivity so that doesn’t count as procrastination, right?

Heh.

This article won’t be a waste of your time if it helps you increase your productivity in the long run. For that to happen though, you have to take away something actionable and try it out for a while. And with this being the longest article I’ve ever published (9,000+ words) there’s a lot of actionable stuff below. Too much for you to make good use of it all at once.

So here’s how I recommend you tackle this:

  1. Skim down through everything and pull out 2-3 actionable tips that you can start using right away.
  2. Spend a few minutes implementing those tips. If you find a tip that will take more time to implement than you’ve got right now, add it as a new task on your to-do list and get to it later.
  3. Set a reminder for a week from today to review those tips you implemented and see how they’re working for you. If they’re not helping, drop them.
  4. As per that same reminder, come back to this list and skim through it again, repeating the process over.
  5. Keep cycling through the list every week until you reach diminishing returns.

That’s it. Dive in…

1. Productivity is a muscle

Cal Newport calls it hard focus. Sebastian Marshall calls it impulse control.

The general message is the same: Productivity isn’t a skill, it’s a muscle. Every time you have an opportunity to be productive and fail, it’s like you’ve skipped going to the gym, and your muscles will weaken.

That’s not to say you should admonish yourself every time you give in and eat a marshmallow (willpower is a finite resource and you’ll burnout eventually if you keep pushing it), but be conscious that you have lots of opportunities to practice productivity each day. The more you take advantage of those opportunities, the stronger you’ll become.

2. Separate what’s urgent from what’s important

A fundamental principle of productivity, as per Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

It’s more important to do the right things than it is to do things right. Effective trumps efficient. Don’t get caught up checking off lots of boxes on the wrong task list.

Covey breaks this down into an urgent/important matrix:

Stephen Covey's Time Management Matrix

Image credit: CommLab India

You want to spend as much time as possible in quadrant II, on the important/not-urgent stuff. If you don’t make those tasks a priority, they’re unlikely to ever get done.

3. Keystone habits

“Success doesn’t depend on getting every single thing right, but instead relies on identifying a few key priorities and fashioning them into powerful levers.” – Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit

Keystone habits are those which help you build confidence and momentum. The payoff of such a habit is usually highly disproportionate compared to the investment.

Some common keystone habits:

  • Exercise
  • Making your bed in the morning
  • Grooming
  • Keeping a clean workspace
  • Tracking your finances

Of course, you can go too far with keystone habits. We’ve probably all decided that our desk needed tidying right about the time we were supposed to sit down and start into a tough work session.

4. Let bad things happen

This is good advice from Tim Ferriss. To achieve your goals, you occasionally need to let bad things happen, like letting important email go unanswered while you work on a legacy project or spend quality time with family.

The trick here is the ability to tell which stuff you can let slide without suffering serious consequences later on.

5. Tracking

In 2009 a group of researchers in the US published the results of a weight loss study they had performed with sixteen hundred obese people. All they had asked the participants to do was to write down everything they ate at least one day per week. Many of the participants went above and beyond with this journaling practice and made it a daily habit. After six months, those who had kept daily food logs had lost twice as much weight as everyone else. 1

Such is the power of tracking. What gets measured gets managed.

How can you use tracking to boost your productivity? RescueTime is one way, a free tool that will track and report how you spend your computer time.

6. Start Small

Leo Babauta wrote about how to form the flossing habit. His advice: Start by flossing just one tooth each night. Sounds ridiculous, right? But it works. If you just have to floss one tooth, it doesn’t sound like a big deal; you’re more likely to stick with it because it’s so quick and easy. Once you’ve made a habit of flossing one tooth, then you start flossing two, then three, and so on. Before you know it, you’re habitually flossing your entire cake hole each night.

You can apply this to any habit. Instead of launching into a daily, 30-minute exercise routine, commit to just five minutes per day in the beginning. Once you’ve stuck with that for a few weeks, then increase it to ten minutes. Keep building like that.

7. Willpower is a finite resource

I’m way more productive in the morning, when I make my most important work the first thing I tackle. Why is that? I believe it’s because, as previously mentioned, willpower is a finite resource. It gets depleted as the day goes on. This is why so many people find it really hard to go to the gym or work on a side project after a long day at work.

If you can, try get up a couple of hours early and do your most important work then, when your willpower levels are likely to be highest.

8. Become an early riser

Maybe it kills you to get out of bed early but you’d like to develop that habit. How do you do it? Experiment with these tips from Steve Pavlina and Leo Babauta.

9. Test for you

All that said, you might be a terrible morning person and only come alive in the evenings, after you’ve already been up for hours. If that’s how your body naturally operates, that’s perfectly fine. Work with it instead of against it.

Many of the ideas in this list may not work for you. Even if something is scientifically proven to work for 99% of the population, you might be part of the other 1%. The only way to know for sure is to test and experiment. You are not the average or the mean or the majority. You are an individual with your own unique set of ever-changing beliefs, values, motivations and circumstances.

10. Pomodoro technique

This is a time-management technique where you break down work sessions into 25-minute chunks, with short breaks in between. Works very well for some people. I use this handy free app for my desktop to time sessions.

11. Cue, routine, reward

I’ve mentioned Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit three times already. That’s because it’s excellent. The main idea in there is that habits work in a three-step loop:

First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering in the future.

If you want to change a habit, apparently the most effective way is to keep the cue and the reward and install a replacement routine. The original routine itself can’t be eradicated. Instead you have to replace it with something better. For example, a person might replace smoking with exercise.

Easier said than done of course. The first step is to become conscious of your loop. If it’s a destructive habit you’re trying to break, ask yourself what is the cue and reward, and then figure out a different routine that you can insert into the loop, one that can provide a similar or better reward.

If it’s a new positive habit you’re trying to build, like going running each morning, you need to create effective cues and rewards. The cue may be laying out your running gear the night before, so it’s the first thing you see when you wake up. Your reward may be an epic smoothie once you get back from your run.

12. Listen to music

Speaking of cues, one that works well for me when I want to get some solid work done is a specific type of music. The Up Tempo channel on Focus@Will works pretty good, helped me get most of this very article written. Before finding that I listened to a station I created on Jango that plays mostly trance/techno music with minimal or repetitive lyrics (too many vocals are distracting to me).

13. Embrace Boredom

“…if you allow yourself to be bored, even for an hour–or less–and don’t fight it, the feelings of boredom will be replaced with feelings of peace. And after a little practice, you’ll learn to relax.” – Richard Carlson, Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff

It’s important to have some downtime. I used to try schedule something productive into every hour of the day. If I had ninety minutes free on Thursday afternoon, I’d try squeeze in lunch with a friend.

Not much work on my plate this week? Why not start a big new project!?

Being proactive and making the most of your free time is great and everything, but I’ve now learned the hard way that it can be taken too far. If I try to make the most of every hour of every day, I inevitably end up burning out and falling into an ugly YouTube coma.

My proposed solution is to embrace boredom. Instead of trying to do something productive with every free hour I come across, I’ll just let myself be. Maybe I’ll go take a relaxing walk, sit in a park and watch the world go by, or kick back and listen to some music. The idea here is that I’ll give myself more time to relax and recharge, rather than constantly pushing to be productive.

A great article by Cal Newport related to this: If You’re Busy, You’re Doing Something Wrong

14. Saying No to the Yes-Worthy

If success is a catalyst for failure because it leads to the “undisciplined pursuit of more,” then one simple antidote is the disciplined pursuit of less. Not just haphazardly saying no, but purposefully, deliberately, and strategically eliminating the nonessentials. Not just once a year as part of a planning meeting, but constantly reducing, focusing and simplifying. Not just getting rid of the obvious time wasters, but being willing to cut out really terrific opportunities as well. Few appear to have the courage to live this principle, which may be why it differentiates successful people and organizations from the very successful ones. – Greg McKeown

Nowadays I find myself needing to say no regularly, and not just to bad stuff. I’ve become fortunate enough that more appealing offers and opportunities come my way than I can possibly say yes to. The only way to handle this is to become pretty ruthless and accept that I’m going to piss some people off by turning down the great opportunities they were kind enough to present to me.

This is a challenge. If someone wants to meet up with me for lunch and a chat, I feel like an asshole saying no. They took the initiative to reach out and were willing to give up some of their own valuable time so they could spend it with me. Hard to say no to that. But at a certain point you have to. There are only so many lunches in a week. You have to get selective about who you spend your time with. And again, you have to be pretty ruthless about this. You start weighing up the pros and cons of building relationships with certain people.

More on this from Derek Sivers: No more yes. It’s either HELL YEAH! or no.

15. Don’t just meet with people, do things with them

At the risk of contradicting myself, here are two ways you can squeeze in more meetups with cool people, without stressing yourself out:

  1. Instead of meeting them one-on-one, arrange a group dinner or outing with other interesting people you’d like to connect with. Be selective with who you invite along. You want people who are likely to get along well with each other.
  2. Instead of doing the regular coffee meetup thing, invite someone along to do an activity you wanted to do anyway. Exercise can work well. Invite someone to join you on your morning run, or to go throw a frisbee around the park for a while.

16. Demand respect / Have clear boundaries

“I would like to make a generational impact on the world. This requires that everyone around me treat me very well, or get out of my life.” – Sebastian Marshall

Mark Manson wrote a great guide on developing strong boundaries. If you don’t have them, you’re going to get pushed around a lot and people will take advantage of your time.

17. Take naps

This works a treat for me. Perhaps it’s because I’m more productive in the mornings. I feel like I have two mornings every day when I take a nap in the afternoon.

18. Use buckets

David Allen is big on this in Getting Things Done, a classic book on productivity.

Buckets are where you capture tasks and information. You’re looking to outsource your brain as much as possible, because every little thing you try to remember costs you mental energy and keeps you distracted.

Examples of buckets:

  • Your to-do list
  • Your calendar
  • Your phone book
  • A reminder service

Some applications are better than others, but it doesn’t really matter what system you use. It matters a lot more that you’re disciplined about using it.

Try not to have overlap between buckets. It should be clear what each bucket is for and what it’s not for. I use Things for my to-do list, MoneyWiz for tracking finances, a Google Sheet for habit tracking.

Some people use Evernote for everything, and that’s fine as long as it works for them. What you don’t want is to have half your stuff in Evernote and half some place else with no real distinction made between when you use one vs. another.

19. Prep for dead time

Always have stuff you can do on the go. Have podcasts on your phone, books and articles on your Kindle. Make it easy to take advantage of dead time, like when you’re waiting in line somewhere.

That’s not to say you should always be doing something. Sometimes it’s nice to be waiting in line and just do nothing, or people watch, or to go for a long drive to clear your head. The goal isn’t to fill every minute of every day with productivity, but it’s smart to always have something better to do than twiddle your thumbs or randomly browse Facebook on your phone when unexpected dead time hits. Doing nothing is fine if you’re intentional about it.

20. Play information audio and video at 1.5 speed

On YouTube, sign up for the HTML5 trial and you can toggle the speed of each video. Most TED Talks and Khan Academy videos, for example, can be watched at 1.5x speed without loss of comprehension, and even faster with a bit of practice. For speeding up podcasts, I use the Swift Player app on my phone.

Try this yourself and you’ll be kicking yourself for consuming audio and video content at normal speed for so long.

21. Define next actions

“Nothing is particularly hard if you divide it into small jobs.” – Henry Ford

Say for example you wanted to start a blog. That’s your goal. Great. Now where do you get started? What’s the very next action you can take to move you closer to your goal? If you’re not very tech savvy and have no idea how to setup a blog, your first step might be getting advice from someone who does. So, you write this down on your to-do list…

  • Ask a computer nerd how to set up a blog.

Except that’s not an actionable first step. It’s not specific enough. There’s still thinking to be done before something can happen with that. A better first step would be:

  • List the three biggest computer nerds I know.

Followed by three more steps:

  • Get contact information for those three nerds.
  • Come up with top 5 questions about setting up a blog.
  • Send each nerd those questions.

Much better. Now you have a to-do list instead of a think-more-about-this list. Your one obscure “action” item became four specific action items, things you can actually go and do.

It’s much harder to procrastinate once you’ve identified that very next action.

22. Separate tasks into maintenance vs. expansive

The expansive stuff you want to do when your willpower levels are high (early morning for me). Such tasks include writing, responding to important emails, making important phone calls, working on systems documentation. Those are just my examples. Yours will be different. Expansive tasks are really anything that requires a high level of creative thinking, usually your most important work.

Maintenance tasks are those that you can do almost without thinking, so you don’t need high levels of concentration for them. Lots of email processing fits into the maintenance category, cleaning your room or desk, doing laundry, going grocery shopping, etc. Always have a stock of maintenance tasks at the ready for when you hit a period of low energy but want to keep getting stuff done.

23. Exercise

From The 4-Hour Body:

“How do you become more productive?”

Richard Branson leaned back and thought for a second. The tropical sounds of his private oasis, Necker Island, murmured in the background. Twenty people sat around him at rapt attention, wondering what a billionaire’s answer would be to one of the big questions—perhaps the biggest question—of business. The group had been assembled by marketing impresario Joe Polish to brainstorm growth options for Richard’s philanthropic Virgin Unite. It was one of his many new ambitious projects. Virgin Group already had more than 300 companies, more than 50,000 employees, and $25 billion per year in revenue. In other words, Branson had personally built an empire larger than the GDP of some developing countries. Then he broke the silence:

“Work out.”

He was serious and elaborated: working out gave him at least four additional hours of productive time every day.

24. Learn to touch type

I committed to practicing touch typing 20 minutes a day (using this free software) for several months last year. I’ve easily earned double that time back this year. I wish I’d learned touch typing much earlier. It’s a fundamental productivity skill for anyone spending significant time in front of a keyboard.

25. Keyboard shortcuts

Similar gains to be made by learning keyboard shortcuts. It pains me to see people using their mouse to perform repetitive tasks that could be accomplished much faster with a keyboard shortcut. For some people all that wasted time must add up to several hours each week. Do yourself a favor and look up keyboard shortcuts for your operating system, and for the applications you use most often.

For example: Do you know how to google something from this page without touching your mouse/trackpad? Two ways I can do it using Firefox on a Mac:

  1. Cmd+K: Places the cursor in the search box in the browser toolbar. I just type, hit return, and a new tab will open up a page with the Google search results.
  2. Cmd+T: This will open up a new browser tab, with the cursor placed in the address bar. I can type my search query there and since Google is set as my default search engine, hitting return will bring me to a results page.

26. Learn to speed read

I haven’t done this myself yet, but I’m beginning to view my current way of reading in the same light as my old way of typing. On average I read one book every week already, so it makes sense to invest time in learning to read faster. Tim Ferriss has some speed reading tips here, but I suspect it takes longer than 20 minutes to build effective speed reading habits, much like it took committed and consistent practice for me to get comfortable with touch typing.

UPDATE: Via Karol in the comments, here’s a Skeptoid episode debunking the claims of many speed reading advocates.

27. The five-minute rule

I believe I first heard this one from David Allen: If you can do a task in five minutes or less and have that time available, do it immediately. Resist putting tasks on a to-do list if they can be done quickly and easily as soon as you come across them. Otherwise it’s just a form of procrastination.

If you don’t have time to handle it right at that moment, drop it in the appropriate bucket (see #18 above) so you can process it later.

28. Stack

I had a hard time forming the meditation habit, even if I was only trying to do five minutes per day. What eventually worked for me was to stack it on top of another habit I’d already formed. Every morning before I did my free writing (1000 words in 13 minutes), I would sit down and meditate for five minutes. My free writing habit acted as a trigger for the meditation habit.

29. Practice doing things even when you don’t want to do them

Tynan wrote a great article about this. As he puts it…

The most important time to do something is when you don’t want to do it. That’s the mark of a champion– someone who knows what he has to do, doesn’t want to do it, but does it anyway. Anyone can write when they want to write. That’s easy. The hard part is when you’re not motivated, uninspired, and distracted.

The point of writing this post wasn’t to get another post on the blog. The point was to reinforce the habit of taking that “I don’t want to do this” stimulus and using it as a trigger for immediate action. I’m always trying to rewire that connection in my brian. Should do this, but don’t want to -> DO IT WITHOUT THINKING.

With any habit worth instilling, you’ll go through periods where you just won’t want to do what it takes. Most people will quit and fail at this point. Dig deep and do it anyway. You’ll be building two habits in one.

30. Change your environment

Environment is huge, and encompasses many of the other things mentioned here.

I was probably never more productive than I was during the two months I spent in Hong Kong earlier this year. It was all because of the environment I created for myself. I had a quiet place to work every day, I set up a solid routine and followed it religiously, and I was ruthless about eliminating distractions, to the point where I went out of my way to be anti-social so I wouldn’t make new friends who wanted to hang out all the time.

That’s an extreme example, I admit, but I hope you get the point.

Sebastian Marshall would unplug his laptop and turn it upside down at night, so in the morning he’d be reminded to plan out his day in a notebook before jumping online and mindlessly checking email/facebook/whatever.

Another implementation of this idea would be to lay out your gym gear before bed so you can’t help but see it in the morning. If instead you have to go through your wardrobe and find some gym shorts and gym shoes, you’re less likely to go to the gym.

What we’re talking about here are barriers. They can work for you or against you. Build barriers that encourage the behaviors you want to habitualize. Destroy barriers that discourage them.

31. Eliminate interruptions

Jason Fried likens work to sleep. If you get woken up every hour during the night, you’re not going to feel well rested the next morning, much like how frequent interruptions when you’re working will ensure that you never get into a good flow with important tasks.

Set everything up as best you can so you’ll have lots of uninterrupted time to do great work. Turn off your phone, sign out of chat, lock the door, move to Hong Kong for two months 😛

If you can’t block off huge chunks of uninterrupted time, be more guarded about the time you do have. Half an hour completely to yourself, focusing intensely on your most important work, is better than two hours with frequent interruptions.

32. Key habit for today

Another tip I picked up from Sebastian, and this has worked phenomenally well for me. Simply start each day by writing out what habit you want to work on. It might be something specific, or it might be more general.

For example, some key habits I’ve written out in recent weeks:

  • Spend at least 3 hours on productivity post
  • Buy running shoes (I’d been putting this off for a week)
  • No nail biting
  • Inbox zero
  • Get things done, avoid laziness and procrastination
  • Strike up conversations with at least five strangers
  • Spend less than 30 minutes on Facebook today

Writing it out makes it way more tangible. But I also recommend combining this tip with the next to really get your ass in gear.

33. Daily review

This is similar to the tracking tip mentioned above (#5). The more conscious you can make your behavior, the easier it is to change it for the better.

My daily review initially consisted of these six questions:

  • Did I achieve my key habit for today? ….. Y/N
  • Approx hours of sleep last night + naps today …..
  • Did I exercise today (stretch/run/gym/sport/long walk) ….. Y/N
  • How healthy was the food I ate today (scale 1-10) …..
  • Average energy level today (scale 1-10) …..
  • General productivity today (scale 1-10) …..

Takes about a minute to fill that out, and then I can look back over time and track my progress, see where I need to improve. The best part though is that it holds me accountable. I can’t just write out some big goal for my key habit in the morning and then forget about it. I know I’ll have to report back later, even if it’s only to myself.

My daily review has expanded over time from six to thirteen questions, but I do advise starting small. Just asking yourself at the end of every day if you achieved your key habit is a good start. Too much too soon and you’re likely to get overwhelmed and quit within a week or two.

34. Public accountability

If you struggle to hold yourself accountable, then rope in someone else to help. Pick five people in your life that you really hate to disappoint, and tell them all that you’re going to have the first manuscript of your book sent to their inbox two months from today.

I’ve used public accountability many times to help me form habits and reach goals. I simply write a blog post about what I want to achieve and as a result I end up pushing myself harder to succeed. I don’t want to have to report back that I got lazy and didn’t follow through.

The added benefit of letting other people know about what you’re trying to do is that they often pitch in with encouragement or helpful suggestions.

35. Join/start a Mastermind group

Nothing has helped me get big tasks done this year quite like Mastermind groups. I’m now in three of them.

What is a Mastermind group? Basically a regular meeting of a small group of people to brainstorm ideas, provide support and encouragement, and hold each other accountable. You can meet with your group in person, or online (via Skype or Google Hangout). All of mine are online.

How do you find people to Mastermind with? Reach out to people you respect and ask if they’d be interested in forming a group with you. That’s how I ended up in all three of my groups. Other people simply reached out and asked if I’d like to join them.

Be selective with who you invite into your group, and test with three people max before adding more. I find that any more than three people and it gets a bit crowded.

Aim for a one-hour call on a regular schedule. I’ve done weekly, fortnightly and monthly. Weekly is best if you’re only in one group methinks.

What format should the meeting take? In my groups we usually rotate leadership duties, so everyone gets a regular chance to run a meeting. We start with five-minute check-ins, where everyone provides an update of what they’ve been doing since their last meeting. Then we’ll open it up for brainstorming. Anyone can jump in and use that time to ask questions, request feedback, etc. We wrap it up then with five minutes each for discussing goals and setting rewards/penalties.

36. Motivate yourself with penalties and/or rewards

It helps tremendously if you define a penalty or reward for each goal and have other people hold you to it (ideally trusted people within your Mastermind group).

My Mastermind buddy Spyros responds best to rewards. He’ll treat himself to some ice cream when he accomplishes a goal. I tend to respond better to penalties.

My penalties used to be monetary. If I failed to reach a goal, I would donate a certain amount to charities specified by the other group members. This proved ineffective because I donate 15% of my income to charity each month anyway, and I would simply count my penalty donations towards that 15%. So I stopped with the donations and instead promised to give up two weeks of “cheat day” if I failed to reach my goal.2 That penalty has worked well. So well that I haven’t once failed to reach a goal with that penalty attached, even when those goals were really tough.

The lesson there is that your penalties must be really motivating, otherwise they won’t make much difference. A friend of mine once agreed to shave just the back half of his head if he didn’t reach a goal he set for himself. He really didn’t want to look that ridiculous, so he worked his ass off to accomplish the goal.

37. The 20-Mile March

“Slow, consistent progress is the only way to make big things happen.” – Nathan Barry

Try do 15 hours of exercise in a weekend and see what happens. It probably won’t be good. But do a half hour of exercise every day for a month and you’ll be on top of the world. Likewise, tipping away at a big work project consistently works much better than trying to get it all done in one big push.

A famous example of the superiority of the slow-and-steady approach was the race to discover the South Pole. Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen led teams hoping to get there first. Scott’s team would march as far as they possibly could on fair-weather days and rest when the weather turned bad. Amundsen’s team took a different approach, deciding to march twenty miles every day regardless of the weather.

Amundsen’s expedition went smoothly. When Scott’s team eventually reached the South Pole, they found Amundsen’s flag already flapping in the wind, and they all perished on the 700-mile return trip.

It’s easiest of all to procrastinate on big meaningful projects, your most important work. People tend to underestimate what they can do with momentum, and overestimate what they can do from a standing start.

38. Have a genius, don’t be one

If you often do creative work, watch this brilliant TED Talk by Elizabeth Gilbert. Adopting her view of creativity has helped me immensely in my writing, making it easier for me to show up and put in the time consistently.

39. Plan your day the night before

I don’t do this myself, but I’ve heard that it works so well for so many high performers that I have to include it here. Your planning session need take no longer than five minutes. If you want to take this to the next level, sit down every Sunday and spend a half hour or so planning out your week.

40. Systematize and outsource

A warning before diving into this one: Focus on outputs first. As Bill Gates once said, “automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.”

A brilliant book on systematization is Work The System by Sam Carpenter. You can download it for free at that link. You’ll never look at toilet paper the same way again.

As for outsourcing, the rule of thumb I like is that you should outsource anything that you can get someone else to do 80% as well as you’d do it yourself, especially when you can jump in quickly at the end and clean up the typos. It’s also much easier to outsource something when you have a solid system in place.

“Hiring help is the ultimate in productivity.” – Pat Flynn

41. Use checklists

Checklists are a simple kind of system, and they’re invaluable. If they’re good enough for NASA…

One thing I’ve started using checklists for is interviews. Instead of trying to remember everything I need to do to prepare for an interview, I now just run down through this checklist:

  • Put phone on silent
  • Have pen & paper ready for taking notes
  • Have water ready
  • Have questions open and reviewed
  • Check camera angle
  • Check hard drive has enough space for recording
  • Check Call Recorder / Camtasia settings (refer to screenshot)
  • Use the bathroom
  • Listen to some funky music to get yourself pumped up

42. Automate

Automate whatever you can then forget about it. An easy place to start is with your finances.

What else can you automate? Can you subscribe to a magazine instead of going to the store to pick up a copy every week? Could you use Amazon’s Subscribe and Save service to have frequently used grocery items delivered to your door? What online tools can you use to speed up your browsing activities?

Even if it takes some time to automate things initially, keep in mind that it’s a worthy investment if it’s likely to save you a ton of time in the long run.

43. Know what your time is worth

At my first real web design job I remember being highly opposed to paying for a widget I could build myself, even if that widget cost $5 and  it would take me hours of work to replicate it. Absolute madness.

Thankfully I had a boss who set me straight, telling me it made a lot more sense to spend $5 on something that would save even 15 minutes of my time, since they were paying me $20 an hour.

So the message here is to recognize the value of your time. If you can spend $50 to save an hour, and an hour of your time is worth $60, do it.

44. Permission to quit

To make it easier to get started on big projects, give yourself permission to quit after twenty minutes. That’s all you have to do. Set a timer and get started. You don’t have to do great work in those twenty minutes. You just have to try. And once the clock hits zero, you’re free to go. Or stay, if you find yourself in a flow.

45. One thing at a time

Don’t have the TV on while you’re trying to study. Don’t talk on the phone while reading a book. Don’t have one on eye on your inbox while writing an article (I’m always suspicious of people who e-mail me back in a hurry).

Multitasking has been proven to be ineffective. Some people might get more done by simultaneously juggling several tasks, but the quality of their work suffers at the expense of quantity.

Focus hard on one thing at a time. Block off a chunk of time, give that one thing all your attention and see how fast you can rip through it. Once it’s done, check it off your list and move on to the next thing.

46. Surround yourself with positive role models

Say you want to build a habit of doing yoga 3-4 times per week, but all your friends are party animals who go out drinking most nights. Plain and simple: Hanging out with those friends isn’t going to do your yoga habit any favors. You’d be much better off making new friends who are into yoga and letting go of those old friendships that don’t serve you anymore.

Many people get upset with me when I talk about leaving old friends behind. They think it’s selfish.

Here’s how it works though: Many people in your life won’t like it if you start changing, and some will actively resist or belittle your efforts. But you have to change in order to grow and learn and improve. So either stay the same, try to please everyone, and never become the person you really want to be, or willingly let go of relationships that aren’t mutually-beneficial so you can become that person.

Ultimately, you’ll be able to help more people and be a more positive influence in the world if you prioritize working on yourself and building good habits. So no, letting go of those so-called friends who hold you back isn’t at all selfish.

47. Don’t beat yourself up about failures

Every now and then, you’ll fail. You won’t go running when you were supposed to, you’ll go a whole week without writing anything, you’ll forget to do your daily review.

Happens to the best of us. The important thing is to not let that one-time failure turn into its own habit. And the best way to prevent that is to not get down on yourself.

The day before I finished this post, I didn’t achieve my key habit for the day. But instead of beating myself up about it, I resolved to get a good night’s sleep, wake up refreshed the next day, and rip through my to-do list like a man on fire. And that’s precisely what I did.

Besides, if you’re not failing occasionally, you’re not setting the bar high enough. Keep close to that edge.

48. Commit for 30 days

30-day trials are powerful. Try commit to doing something (or not doing something) every day for thirty days, and promise yourself afterwards that you can quit if you want to, or give yourself some kind of reward.

Usually what happens with 30-day trials is that it sucks for the first two weeks or so, but then you get into the rhythm of your new routine and start to habitualize the new behavior. Once the thirty days are up, you find that it’s really no big deal to keep going, so you do.

My vegetarian diet started as a 30-day trial. I used a similar approach to quit pornography.

49. Be flexible

I think there’s a fine line between being flexible and multitasking. We all know that the latter isn’t really a good thing and actually leads to getting less done. But flexibility is different.

I used to get fixated on completing a particular task at a particular time, and then if I reached an impasse with that task (waiting for a client to get back to me with some key info, wifi not working in my apartment, etc.), I’d just throw my hands up in defeat and go do something completely unproductive.

What I do now instead is quickly switch to a different task if I reach an impasse with the first.

So if the wifi goes down in my apartment when I was planning on answering a bunch of emails or responding to comments, I’ll just go ahead and start writing my next blog post instead, or get my typing practice out of the way for the day, or do my daily stretching routine earlier than I had originally planned. This frees up time later to do my online work when the connection comes back.

It’s all about training yourself to switch from a powerless mentality to a proactive one:

  • Powerless: I can’t work, the wifi is down!
  • Proactive: Okay, no problem. What else can I get done in the meantime?

Just be wary not to slip into multitasking under the guise of flexibility. Try to complete one task fully before you move on to something else.

50. Explain yourself (in writing)

One thing that helps when I hit a roadblock in a client project is to write out the problem as if I’m describing it to someone else. It’s amazing how often I come up with a solution when this happens. When you have to explain your sticking point to someone else, actually justify why you can’t proceed with a project any further, your excuses are exposed for what they really are.

Try explaining to someone else why you can’t do something, and have them tell you if your excuse is bullshit. Or just write it out yourself as if you were explaining it to someone else; becomes obvious pretty fast if you’re full of it.

To take this idea further, get those you work with to describe their sticking points via email, and watch in amazement as they begin to come up with solutions on their own.

51. Decide and conquer

Practice making quick decisions. Indecision is often worse than wrong decision. Look at it once, make a decision, run with it. If it’s the wrong decision, no worries, you can always change direction later. For big decisions, sure, you might want to sleep on it and let your subconscious work its magic. But stop procrastinating on the small stuff.

I think this is a huge difference between people who get shit done and those who don’t. Doers make more decisions. They decide and then they move on.

So get into the habit of making decisions. Guys, as a bonus, women will love you if you do this, because it’s a strong sign of masculinity and leadership. Don’t ask her where she’d like to go for dinner. Pick a place and bring her there.

52. Prioritize

Prioritization is of the utmost importance. You need to figure out all your goals and give yourself some targets. If you have no targets, you’ll have nothing to aim for, and so you’ll surely miss.

I like to sit down at least once a quarter and figure out my priorities and goals. I use Steve Pavlina’s method for doing this, as described in his Truth and Awareness podcast. Basically, you write down how you feel about several different areas of your life and score each out of ten according to your level of satisfaction. This gives you a good idea of what your focus should be going forward. (For example, if you score 2/10 for physical health, you know that this is an area where you should be focusing a lot of your time and energy for the next few months.) From this exercise, I usually end up with about five things I want to focus on going forward, and I’ll rank them in order of importance so I’ll know which should take precedence during a conflict.

I can’t emphasize the importance of prioritizing enough. Once you’re clear on what your top goals are, you’ll be able to plan your time better to ensure you achieve them. Think effectiveness rather than efficiency. Busy people are often very efficient, but not always very effective. Doing something efficiently doesn’t make it important. Prioritizing helps you make effective use of your time.

53. Eliminate (80/20)

Having figured out your priorities, you should now be in a better position to eliminate as much fluff as possible, keeping only the important items on your task list. The Pareto principle states that 80 percent of the effects come from 20 percent of the causes, meaning that a lot of the things we do have very little impact; the majority of our investments produce poor returns. We need to weed those out.

Common examples:

  • 80% of your sales come from 20% of your customers.
  • 1% of the population holds 90% of the wealth.
  • You wear 30% of your clothes 70% of the time.

As you can see, the numbers aren’t always 80/20, but the principle holds pretty well in many areas. 3

Since I’ve started prioritizing and setting goals, I’ve found that I’m much more self-assured and able to make good decisions quickly. I just have to ask myself if the action/inaction I’m considering will move me closer to one of my primary goals. If the answer is no, I drop it and move on to something else. If the answer is yes, I plunge ahead with confidence.

For this reason, I never play video games and I spend very little time watching television or following the news. Those activities don’t move me closer to my goals at all, so I mostly consider them a waste of my time.

What are the things that you spend a lot of time on? Could that time be better invested?

54. Set deadlines

Remember Parkinson’s Law: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. Back in college, we’d be given two weeks to write an essay, and the vast majority of the class would end up rushing to the printer on the final afternoon, having just pulled an all-nighter to get the damn thing finished. Of course the two-week time frame had little to do with that panic. It would have been the same story with a one week or a one month deadline. We humans just have a tendency to put things off as long as they’re not deemed urgent. And then, when they do become urgent, we magically find a way to get them done.

It’s important not to set easy deadlines. You’re looking to create a sense of urgency, to set yourself a challenge that excites you. That will get you focused. If I’m slacking at work, I’ll sometimes halve my deadlines to ensure I don’t sit around wasting time all day.

A good question to ask yourself: How would I handle this task if it had to be done in 15 minutes?

55. Be proactive

Laziness is a snowball rolling down a hill. If you sit down and watch TV for half an hour, you’re not likely to want to go and do something productive afterwards. But fortunately, productivity works the same way. Getting things done begets getting things done. Hence the saying, “if you want something done, ask a busy person to do it.”

Now that’s not to say you should always be busy. Obviously there’s a lot to be said about taking time to relax and recharge (see the next point). But don’t cheat your future self. Make the most of idle moments to tidy your desk, do the dishes, send that e-mail, etc. Use those idle moments to invest in your future, even if it’s something as simple as doing your groceries during Thursday lunch so you can sleep in an extra hour on Saturday.

56. Eat well

Food is fuel for your body. Put good fuel in, get good performance out. Cut back on heavily processed foods, and drinks like alcohol, coffee and soda. Try not to eat late at night. Pay attention to how your energy levels rise/fall after consuming different types of food. There’s no one diet out there that’s perfect for everyone, so you’ll need to experiment to find out what works best for you.

57. Take time to rest and recharge

As well as sleep, things like meditation, vacations and deep breathing fit in here. Basically, anything that allows your mind to relax and your body to recharge. Allowing yourself ample time to rest and recuperate is crucial if you want to be able to perform consistently at a high level. There’s a fine line to walk here though; be careful not to slip into lazy territory.

58. Grooming

When you feel clean and well groomed, you feel better about yourself. The better you feel about yourself, the easier it is to be productive. Sounds like a silly, insignificant thing, but for some people it makes a massive difference. More on grooming and productivity here.

59. Ride the wave

Go with the flow when you can. Doing something when you feel like it is much more effective than forcing yourself when you’re really not in the mood. As such, recognize when you’ve got a good flow going and ride it for as long as possible. This often applies to me when I’m writing. Sometimes the words and ideas flow out easily and other times it can be a gigantic struggle to write a single paragraph. When I feel that flow, I’ll do my best to milk it, moving things around on my schedule to accommodate if necessary.

This isn’t to say that you should just admit defeat and give up if you’re not in the zone. As per #37 and #38 above, try your best to show up for work every day regardless of how you feel.

60. Practice impulse control

A big key to productivity is being able to master your impulses. For example, instead of checking Facebook, you force yourself to do another twenty minutes of your most important work. That’s impulse control.

One really good way to practice impulse control is to do five minutes of meditation daily. Remember that meditation is a practice. It’s easy to get frustrated when you can’t stop your mind from wandering, but the whole point of meditation is to recognize when your mind is wandering, and then gently bring your attention back to your breath. Each time you do that, you’re controlling your impulse.

More on impulse control here.

61. Get into a routine

Your brain only has so much processing power. When you get into a solid routine, you’re saving a lot of that processing power and can use it for more high-level tasks.

A prime example of this for me is food. When I’m on the road, meals require a lot of thought. I have to figure out where the good value restaurants are and what to order off the menu. If I know I’m going to be staying put in one place for a while, I’ll try put my decision making on automatic. That is, I’ll figure out a good routine as fast as possible, and then just follow it without thinking. I’ve been here in Chiang Mai in Thailand for a couple of weeks now and with rare exceptions I eat the same meals in the same restaurants for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

You’ve probably heard of another example along these lines: clothing. Steve Jobs was known to wear pretty much the same thing (jeans and a polo neck) every day. Albert Einstein was reported to have done similar in his later years.

This also applies to your work hours. Sure, it’s great to be self-employed because you can work whenever you want, but most self-employed people end up working pretty set hours because the consistency helps them be more productive. I know that’s certainly true for me.

What low-level tasks can you make routine so you barely have to think about them?

62. Know your WHY, and remind yourself of it constantly

Why are you doing the work? That’s a crucial question to ask yourself. Because if you don’t have a good answer, motivation will always be lacking.

Andy Drish from The Foundation recently wrote about the morning rituals of their most successful students:

These students were making a minimum of $2,000/month after six months. And the top student had over $20,000 in sales… in under six months… for a product that wasn’t built yet.

Each of these students had a clear reason WHY they wanted a business. And almost all of them start each day by reading this first.

Check out Andy’s full article over at Hack The System for a quick-start guide to building your own ‘Why’.

63. Just-In-Time learning vs. Just-In-Case learning

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” – Alvin Toffler

Matt Dickenson has a nice article on this. Be wary of learning something that might come in handy “someday.” The smarter approach is usually to figure out the very next thing you need to learn to move forward, then go learn that and put the knowledge immediately to use.

64. Cheat

I’m pretty strict with my diet and try to eat extremely healthy. But only six days a week. On Saturdays I have a “cheat day” and allow myself to eat whatever the hell I want. It’s pretty disgusting. And awesome.

By allowing myself to cheat once a week, I find it fairly easy to be strict and avoid eating crap the rest of the week. Overall my diet is much better than when I tried to eat kinda healthy every day, and way more sustainable than trying to eat very healthy all the time, with no indulgences.

What’s better: two weeks of perfect then quit, or indefinite weeks of good enough?

I often cheat with exercise, too. Like with push-ups or pull-ups. The slower you do them, the harder it is on your muscles, and the better workout you have. The problem though is that it’s much harder psychologically to stick with a workout program if progress is very slow. So I’ll sometimes swing and kick my legs a bit when doing pull-ups to help me get more reps than yesterday. I’m cheating, sure, but if i gives me a good buzz and makes me more likely to workout again tomorrow, then it’s the smart move.

Think about where you can let yourself off the hook every now and then. Look to cheat in the occasional battle so you have a better chance of winning the war.

65. Forget about balance in the short-term

This tip from Sean Ogle was a big ah-ha for me:

Realize there doesn’t ALWAYS have to be a good balance. This is HUGE and something many people will not understand. In order to achieve the perfect work/life balance over the long term, you’ll face times where there is a significant lack of balance. You may have a few months leading up to a major product launch where you work 12 hours a day 7 days a week. Sure that isn’t sustainable over the long term, but hell, you’re building a business! Sacrifice has to be made. The sooner you accept that as your reality, the sooner you’ll stop stressing out about it and start making stuff happen.

That said, it goes both ways. There could also be times where you take two weeks off and hardly think about work. Enjoy that time, don’t stress, and relish in the fact that you’ve earned it, and that it’s part of your lifestyle.

66. Ask yourself: “How does this fit into my overall plan?”

Love this tip from Pat Flynn, a great way to help figure out the opportunities you should say no to:

If someone comes up to you and asks you to do an interview, you want to ask yourself, “Well, how does this fit into my overall plan?” And if it doesn’t, then maybe it’s something that you shouldn’t do and you should consider declining. Actually, it’s something you should decline. It’s a really simple question to ask yourself that will help you make better decisions and make those decisions faster.

67. Wash the dishes

Yaro Starak recently shared his trick for being productive when he really doesn’t feel like it: Start with a low-level task to build momentum. Specifically, Yaro usually gets himself going by washing the dishes, but recommends pretty much any menial task around the house.

68. Don’t stress about stress

Kelly McGonigal shares the results of a fascinating study on stress:

This study tracked 30,000 adults in the United States for eight years, and they started by asking people, “How much stress have you experienced in the last year?” They also asked, “Do you believe that stress is harmful for your health?” And then they used public death records to find out who died. Some bad news first: People who experienced a lot of stress in the previous year had a 43% increased risk of dying. But that was only true for the people who also believed that stress is harmful for your health. People who experienced a lot of stress but did not view stress as harmful were no more likely to die. In fact, they had the lowest risk of dying of anyone in the study, including people who had relatively little stress.

Takeaway: Stress isn’t the problem. Thinking that stress is the problem is the problem. So next time you find yourself stressed because of work, try not to think of the stress as being a bad thing. Instead, try to think of it as a helpful response by your body to a heavy workload, aiding peak performance.

69. Become a Gmail Ninja

Email is a big time suck for a lot of people. Many of you reading this are likely to use Gmail, so I’ll wrap this up with a few tips that have helped me be more effective with my email usage.

  1. Only have Gmail open when you’re actively using it. Never have it open in a background window or tab. It’s too tempting to jump over when you notice a new email alert, or to accidentally flip to that tab and get sucked into email processing without thinking. Unless it’s very important for you to know every time you receive a new email (and for 99.7% of us, that’s simply not the case), also disable all email alerts that show up on your phone, desktop, etc. For optimal use, checking email should be a proactive decision, not a reactive one. (This applies to things like Facebook and Twitter, too.)
  2. Aim for inbox zero at all times. Your inbox is not a to-do list. If an email does require a specific action before you can reply to it, archive the email and note that specific action in your to-do list. Otherwise, every time you check your inbox you’re faced with a list of old messages sitting there and you have to remember the actions you decided on for each of them (if you decided at all the first time around).
  3. Make good use of filters. You really only want urgent and important emails landing in your inbox. Set up filters for everything else to minimize distractions. For example, all the blogs I subscribe to by email are automatically filtered out of the inbox and tagged with a “2 read” label. Whenever I decide consciously to spend some time catching up on my blog reading, I can go into that label in Gmail, scan the headlines and pick out a few posts that interest me. Before I started doing this, new blog posts would arrive in my inbox and I’d end up reading them instead of processing urgent/important emails.
  4. Batch process your emails. This is easier to do if you make good use of filters. For example, I have all my comment alerts filtered to one label, letting me know when anyone comments on my blog or YouTube channel. If I’m busy, I won’t check that label until the unread count hits 5 or more. Batch processing is effective because you don’t waste significant time switching between tasks or types of emails. It’s easier for me to tackle all comments in one go than it is to respond to a comment, then read a blog post, then respond to an email from a friend, then respond to another comment, then do a half hour of writing, and so on.
  5. If you’re a morning person like me, someone who is usually at peak performance early in the day, resist checking email until after lunch. It’s too easy for “let me just check my email real quick” to become, “Shit, where did the last three hours go?” Even if you frequently receive emails that require a fast response, resist the temptation to check email first thing. Try get some expansive task done first, some task that usually falls by the wayside once you get sucked into response mode. I find my day goes way better when I start out proactive instead of reactive, and checking email is a sure-fire way to be the latter.
  6. Have a backdoor for Gmail. By this I mean that you should have some way of using your Gmail without loading up the inbox first, because it’s too easy for new messages to distract you. This often happens when you’re looking for some information from an old email conversation. You load up Gmail, but before you type your search term into the box at the top of the page, your eye wanders to the list of new messages in your inbox and before you know it a half hour has disappeared and you’re wondering what you opened up Gmail for in the first place. My solution to this is a Gmail button on my browser toolbar that links to an non-existent label. I click that and Gmail loads up to a blank page instead of the inbox. I can then use the search box from there and avoid getting distracted by my inbox.
  7. If you find yourself writing the same or similar responses to people over and over again, you can do a few things. One is to write an FAQ-style article and post it online, then point the appropriate people to it whenever they email you. If many of those people are messaging you through a specific contact page online, link to that article on the contact page so they’re likely to see it before messaging you. Another option is to use canned responses for those kinds of repetitive emails. Gmail has a labs feature you can enable for this. YesWare has a similar feature.
  8. Immediately unsubscribe from lists/newsletters you don’t find valuable or don’t remember signing up to.

Anything you’d add?

Any productivity tips or ideas I neglected to mention that have worked well for you? Let me know via the comments.

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Show 3 footnotes

  1. Ref: Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit
  2. I try to eat extremely healthy six days a week, then let myself go nuts and eat whatever the hell I want on Saturdays. My cheat days are disgusting and glorious.
  3. Vilfredo Pareto first noticed it with the peas in his garden: 20% of the pods produced 80% of the peas.

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