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How To Be More Productive
By Sean Stevenson – Latest Revision January 3rd, 2021
It’s hard, but not impossible to become a better worker. Every productive professional builds consistent work habits that enables their success. So, how can you do the same?
Naturally, we have all seen that highly productive individual firsthand. That person on our team who just naturally exudes a can-do ability. Often, they seem to channel their skills seamlessly into getting things done at an incredible rate.
A task that takes us an hour, takes them twenty minutes. Nothing gets them down. They are always ahead of the curb.
In stark contrast, hours can pass by, and despite our best efforts we continually “fail.” Reaching the optimal outcomes we set out to achieve seems a distant goal. We leave work saddened by the sense of our own inadequacy, our own inability.
Compared to our highly productive peers, it can be easy to feel inept.
It is important to realize that none of this is a phenomenon.
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If you want to impress your boss and improve your career prospects, the following is tailored just for you.
In this in-depth guide, I’m going to show you:
- Productive habits that lead to peak productivity
- Better ways to manage your time
- Task prioritization
- How to cultivate high quality work everyday
- Ways to eliminate distractions during work hours
- The Eisenhower Matrix
- The 80/20 Rule of Personal Productivity
- And finally, additional methods that will help keep your efforts organized and concerted towards producing better outcomes
A Brief Interlude on Productivity
No matter what you do for work, being optimally productive can prove a daily challenge. In truth, there is a science to productivity. Most of us simply don’t have time to learn it in detail.
While this is not to say any of us are necessarily lazy (on the contrary!). It is to say that in today’s highly competitive world, we all wish we were naturally more inclined towards peak productivity levels.
That same peak productivity we see others achieve so easily is actually a learned habit.
High achievers know this. They’ve impressed this habit upon themselves over time to such an extent, that it’s become second nature. To them, optimal methods of productivity are just a normal way of working.
This process is basically the same for everyone. Although it obviously takes time to develop powerful work habits, we can all learn how.
Anyone can exploit these habit-making actions and become far more efficient at producing strong results at work everyday.
Manage Your Time Effectively
In terms of being productive, time management is king. If you can manage your time effectively, you will be well ahead of the vast majority of people.
I once knew an elderly man. We worked in the same place years ago.
When I say elderly, I mean relatively older than myself and my peers. This gentleman was in his 40s, whereas I was not yet even 20 years of age at that time.
Yet, despite the age gap, he was always a step ahead of everyone else.
When projects were assigned, he was always the first to complete every task.
On its own this may not seem remarkable. Some people stay ahead of their workloads. It’s not entirely uncommon. What was curious however, was that he was always producing high quality work with minimal amounts of time invested.
Moreover, as I soon discovered, he was not ahead by just by a day or two either. He was entire weeks ahead of everyone else in almost every project he participated in.
When I asked him how this was possible, how he could manage so many workloads with such ease, he smiled, saying only, “Time management.”
Naturally, being the young man I was at the time, I frowned and openly scoffed at him. To my shame, I even mocked him slightly. I was so very frustrated and taken aback.
I exclaimed that time management alone was no answer to how he could be so proficient at getting so much done in such a short period of time.
Yet, the elder gentleman persisted. He stated plainly again, “Time management,” except this time he elaborated, “… and remaining focused. So many people are so often taken by innumerable distractions that come from every direction in our lives. Instead of paying attention to a hundred things at once, focus on only one thing at a time. Manage your time extremely well. Take breaks only to eat and drink. Most importantly, maintain focus on one thing that matters most to you. Only move onto the next when you are done. You’ll be surprised at what can be accomplished if you do.”
I took my elder’s advice. I worked with utter dedication. I took breaks only between accomplishing tasks to refuel my body with food and drink.
Much to my surprise, I was soon completing work projects at over twice the speed I had done previously up until that point. My productivity had gone through the roof!
This elder gentleman -whose name eludes me until this very day, otherwise I would contact him to thank him profusely- changed my existence with this simple life lesson.
If you want to become more productive, I cannot stress the importance of this lesson enough.
Sit down when you have the time. Create a schedule on a sheet of paper. Dedicate a full eight to twelve hours straight towards getting a specific task done if necessary. Make sure each learning experience will have a positive impact in your life by remembering its importance.
Create time slots to account for every waking moment of that time you have set aside. Only take breaks to eat and drink.
If you can remain focused and follow this to the letter, you will have done something very precious. You will have managed your time very effectively.
Master this art. Embrace how much you can get done. If you really set your mind and time towards being productive, nothing will ever halt your progress again.
Prioritize Important Tasks And Focus On Those First
Learning to focus on what needs to get done first is a huge boon to any form of productivity. A to-do list can be a great tool in this regard. I regularly make use of these myself when scheduling tasks that require imminent completion.
On any blank sheet of paper, write down what you need to get done. Draw little boxes next to each task, so that you can check them off as you go.
Then, prioritize the top three (or more) tasks that must be completed. Number these most-important tasks so that you can clearly see and act on them.
These numbered objectives should only be the essential tasks that -no matter what- you need to get done on a given day. Try not to overdo this. Complications can always arise unexpectedly in a given workday. You might not have enough time to complete everything.
For best results, focus on the most important tasks first. Then follow up on everything else.
Below is a graphic example (for reference) of what your productivity list should generally look like:
A productive list like this can make a huge difference.
This list should renew your focus each time you review it. This will make your tasks more meaningful. They will also be easier to reference as you fulfill your obligations throughout the day.
There is a certain satisfaction in steadily checking off completed tasks. It helps to keep you motivated and focused.
Visualizing not just your objectives, but your progress too, is very important.
Always try to recognize that rushing your work is not an effective strategy. You only have so much time in a workday to get things done. Accept this fact, and make the best choices you can with the time available.
Being productive should never be confused with completionism. Discern high-value tasks first and act on them. Then follow up each day with the next.
Soon enough, you’ll be handily completing your important tasks. You’ll also remain organized by virtue of having a prioritized list. Use this to its fullest effect. Complete tasks efficiently and delegate secondary jobs to others as necessary.
Cultivate High Quality Work Everyday
There are times when a certain task or project can be extremely complex in nature. In this instance, there is no substitute for a steady work-ethic.
When dealing with difficult tasks, devote as much mental effort to their completion as possible. Once you tire from exerting yourself, it is essential that you take a break.
Giving your body rest and relaxation between productivity sprints is essential to cultivating strong work habits. White knuckling your way through a series of projects is not only unhealthy, it is unsustainable.
Dedicating your time, energy, and even your breaks towards getting something done is an essential habit. This is known as “deep work,” and it takes perseverance to fully master.
Think of this exertion as a way to help you improve yourself over time. You will gain new skills and powerful experiences by such dedication. Moreover, your organization will likely thank you for the effort.
In contrast, there are also tasks that may be mind-numbingly simple. In these cases, you may even find yourself listening to music as you complete an all-too-familiar routine.
While there is nothing wrong with this, be sure you always proof-read and review your work. Making a habit of editing yourself is a key part of developing self-reliance as a professional in any field.
Eliminate Distractions Entirely During Work Hours
A key aspect of cultivating your own work habits, is to remove temptations and distractions entirely. Being productive requires dedication. If you want to succeed, there really is no alternative.
To this end, plan ahead of scheduled work periods. Decide when you can be most dedicated to your deep work efforts. Are you:
Whatever you choose, ideally, this should be a consistent time period. It really helps to develop a routine by remaining consistent.
Routines themselves often assist in making hyper-productivity a foundational habit.
Now that you have decided upon when you are most capable and productive during your workday, it’s time to eliminate distractions entirely.
Ask yourself what distractions are most common for you throughout your day? Most people immediately think of their smartphone, but a surprising element that most people forget, is their email.
Try to remove the following distractions during your scheduled work period:
While this list is by no means absolute, try to understand that each category can represent a plethora of potential distractions. All of these issues can cripple productivity severely. Try to consider each as you eliminate unnecessary diversions from your workflow.
If necessary, be difficult to contact. Turn off your phone and disconnect from social media. Make it clear to others that you are currently unavailable. You won’t have to be rude to accomplish this, but you can quite literally share that status openly, so that others will know ahead of time.
During Crunch Periods – Use The Eisenhower Matrix
Being productive can make us focus on short time frames. Rather than seeing the larger picture, we become lost in the spur of the moment.
Counteracting this danger is easily accomplished by using the Eisenhower Matrix. Moreover, if you aren’t a fan of using lists, this matrix might be a more attractive answer for you.
It will help you prioritize important tasks and make better use of your time.
As its name implies, the Eisenhower Matrix was often used by Dwight Eisenhower himself. Before becoming the 34th President of the United States, Eisenhower served as the Allied Forces Supreme Commander during World War II. He was also NATO’s first Supreme Commander.
Eisenhower made some of the most notoriously difficult decisions of the past century. The D-Day invasion of Normandy was a prime example of this.
During his tenure, Eisenhower often remarked on how he would prioritize his time towards the most important tasks. These tasks of his day would literally mean the difference between victory and defeat against a fascist war machine. Facing down the Nazis and their leader Adolf Hitler, Eisenhower made copious use of the Eisenhower Matrix to plan his tasks based on their urgency.
The matrix itself organizes objectives based on their importance within four quadrants. This allows for differing work strategies to be neatly categorized and acted upon.
Below is the Eisenhower Matrix for both reference and later use:
01. Do First
The first quadrant is always known as the “Do First” task. This is your go-to productive list. These are always the most important, as they tend to weigh heavily upon both your career and life. They should be done as quickly as possible. Today or tomorrow at the absolute latest!
An example of these types of tasks could be an imminent project deadline.
This is a category that demands your utmost attention. For optimal outcomes, it must be treated as such.
The second quadrant is commonly known as “Schedule.” These tasks far less urgent, but also hold importance, nonetheless. Often these are tasks that you need to make note of. You should put them in your calendar as a precaution.
This is your secondary productive list. If all else is completed in the first section, you should be focused on this section.
An example of these “Schedule” tasks, would be a rekindled habit of jogging for health reasons. You should make sure to follow up on this and be sure to record the outcome for future reference.
The purpose of professionally managing your own time, is to allow you to make the most use of your day.
Throughout your day, you will greatly reduce your own stress by having a pre-planned schedule. It takes the guesswork out of your efforts. Moreover, it allows you to be flexible when new issues present themselves.
Excellent time management leaves nothing unplanned. Try to manage most of your own work projects using this second quadrant.
Ideally, avoid letting anything reach the first quadrant. Urgent projects tend to be rushed and stressed over as a direct result.
The third quadrant is for tasks that remain fairly urgent. However, these tasks can be delegated to others, as they are ultimately of less importance in the grand scheme of things.
Be sure to keep track of delegated tasks nonetheless. You still need to make sure that they are being completed effectively, efficiently, and on time. It is advisable to do so via phone, email, or by meeting in person.
Check on progress, and assist as necessary. But remember, you assigned the task for a reason, and you must expect that it will be completed as instructed.
An example of such a delegated task, would be someone asking for your help on a project. While you would likely be the best option for that person, you can still delegate the next most qualified candidate to assist them.
At times, you might even be able to avoid delegating altogether, by instead providing the important information needed for the matter to be dealt with.
This too, may require you to check in occasionally to assist with the overall progress being made. It is still however, a matter of delegating your time and resources, without taking on the task yourself.
04. Don't Do!
The fourth and final quadrant in the Eisenhower Matrix, is known as the “Don’t Do” sphere of influence. Much as you might have guessed, these are tasks that you should not be wasting time on whatsoever. Organizing this final quadrant is extremely important. It will prevent you from exploring tasks that are secondary to all others.
Doing the right things is just as important as avoiding pointless work. Use this fourth quadrant to establish boundaries that will allow you to be productive in the right ways. This includes:
When working with the Eisenhower Matrix, always question what is most important. By understanding which tasks are a priority, and which are not, you will be well on your way to creating a fool-proof method of organization.
It can be liberating to devise a powerful plan such as this. It takes a huge weight off your mind knowing you are prepared for the days ahead.
However, for each quadrant, do not overdo it. Limit yourself to no more than six tasks per quadrant. Any more than this and you may end up creating a confusing matrix.
Moreover, before adding new tasks, complete the most important priorities first. Focus on one task at a time before moving on to the next. This will help keep the quality of your work high.
Focusing on too many projects at once will inevitably divide your attention and create rifts in your work. These things will be noticed by others in the end result, smothering your great ideas.
Remember that the entire purpose of the matrix is to help you complete tasks, not to collect new ones for later. Keeping one matrix for your business tasks, and one for your personal chores is the best practice. This will keep a separation of priorities, allowing you to better organize yourself in turn.
Never let others influence what you need to get done. If there are priorities that are important to you, or your career, complete those first no matter what.
Lastly, this matrix only works if you work for it. Procrastination will still nullify any real effort. To get things done, you have to motivate yourself and remain organized at all times. Do not lose sight of this simply because you made use of an organizational matrix. It won’t do your work for you!
While Working, Keep A Journal Of Your Own Mental Distractions
Often while working, I find myself thinking of other, potentially great ideas. Much like the “infamous shower thoughts” we all enjoy discussing, these ideas can be invaluable.
Ironically enough, it is being productive that often grants us these precious moments of lucidity.
Dream-like ideas that form in our minds are entirely natural, and often fleeting. Moreover, they can prove very important to your own personal development if exercised correctly.
This is where a distraction journal proves useful. Writing down these distracting ideas as you work through them can be a huge boon. Not only does it eliminate the distracting thought itself, it also preserves the idea for you to explore later on.
I have built entire businesses from these ideas that flickered about during normal work routines. The use of inspired ideas is infinite. This is what makes this action of recording these thoughts so powerful.
Some of our thoughts might even be more mundane in nature. If you suddenly remember you need to pay the bills, or if you have an idea for a new recipe, write it down immediately.
Our brains are most often distracted by the nature of our environment. Many of our thoughts deserve our attention. Just try to limit these thoughts during work hours.
It can be rare for our minds to fully consider something. Often, it takes time to even fully process.
When able, take note of your thoughts. Whether it’s a digital document, or a sheet of paper, always keep your distraction journal close by. Then, when you have time later, review the thoughts you wrote down. You will likely be surprised by what your brain came up with as you were working away.
With this method you can kill two birds with one stone. You’ll be eliminating distractions at their root, while recording important ideas.
Moreover, your recorded thoughts can certainly prove precious in the future. All it takes is one inspired notion to spark a lifetime of purpose.
Understand Your Own Habits
From a psychological point of view, it is boredom and frustration that cause us to lose our focus. We seek distractions as a means of “escape” from our own personal drudgery.
We each have habits that conflict with our own ability to accomplish tasks. Being aware of these can make a world of difference. Try writing down your own bad habits on a blank sheet of paper. Develop ideas about how you can improve on dealing with these issues as they emerge during scheduled work periods.
When being productive, try to reflect on what you know works best for you personally:
To counteract the feelings that can disrupt your own productivity, consider meditating or a comfortable side-task to refocus your mind. In either case, try to relax your thoughts from time to time, before continuing with your work.
Slow breathing, and a positive attitude, have both been shown to increase productive capabilities in most workers. Cultivating these can give you a huge boost in endurance.
In my own case, I use the free oak meditation app. Before this app, I had no experience in meditation whatsoever. This app works for me, since it guides me to a calm state of mind.
Not only is this guided meditation refreshing, it allows me to refocus my brain. The task at hand becomes exciting again, and I can engage more effectively as a result.
I highly recommend this free meditation app. Especially if you have never tried meditation before in your life.
Use The 80/20 Rule Of Personal Productivity
Another keen method of improving your productivity, is to understand and make use of the 80/20 rule.
We often spend far too much time on frivolous things. It is because of this that the 80/20 rule states its lesson: 20% of our time and effort brings in 80% of the results. The second round of that same 20% time and effort only brings in another 10% of results. The next only 3%.
These diminishing returns show us the nature of human efforts. The longer we spend on a project, the more our productivity rapidly declines.
In short, it can be just as important to know how to start as it can be to know when to quit. After committing as many resources and as much effort as you feasibly can, quit. Dragging on is pointless. Instead, try to seek feedback and make changes where necessary (discussed in more detail below!).
Obtain Feedback And Make Changes Where Necessary
Part of any truly productive method involves getting feedback, and fast.
It is never enough to work hard and call it quits immediately thereafter. This is only the first part of your productivity cycle at best.
Upon initial completion of your “first draft,” whether it is a product, a process, or a report, seek immediate feedback.
The type of feedback you’re after will depend on who this project directly impacts. If it is related to customers, seek their appraisal. If it matters more internally, look for the feedback of your colleagues wherever possible.
Try to obtain as much information as possible from any interested parties. You will use these resources to improve upon what you have already built.
If you find yourself unable to devise a solution on your own, you may wish to ask for help. Perhaps even consider outsourcing your efforts to a freelancer.
This can save you huge amounts of time. Moreover, you will be conserving your energy for more important work efforts that may need your attention.
It can be easy to take feedback personally and become offended. Yet this is an error in judgement. Instead, try to view feedback as constructive learning material that will help you to grow.
Never take feedback as a personal attack. Instead consider it as an opportunity to improve upon your abilities.
By its nature, feedback will save you a lot of time and energy. It will help guide you towards a better solution and outcome.
In my own case, there have been many times where I neglected obtaining feedback. This cost me innumerable hours and quite a bit of money. Naturally, I only realized this after the fact.
However, as soon as I began actively seeking the opinions of others, I quickly realized where I had gone wrong. Further, I understood how I could leverage my efforts more effectively.
Naturally, after obtaining and using said feedback, I started to see tangible results. It was not immediate, but it did come far faster than it would have otherwise.
Feedback really is the best way to understand where your strengths and weaknesses are. Embrace it fully. Use every tidbit of information you can to better your project.
You will not regret doing so. It will inevitably lead you to the next level of your journey.
A Summarizing Conclusion – How To Be More Productive
Being productive is a learned habit. Even the much coveted “hyper-productivity” can be reached if one is dedicated enough in its pursuit.
In this article we explored the following topics as they relate to productivity:
By learning from, and using these multifaceted methods, you can greatly improve your own personal productivity.
You may not see immediate results. There is a time factor involved in self-improvement of any kind.
Try to recognize that all real growth is a process. It simply does not happen overnight. You must remain engaged and committed for years to fully develop the skills and methods explored herein.
Despite this, even a slow effort will still see steady results. As long as you continue to progress towards a better tomorrow, you will heighten your own merit. Finding better ways of accomplishing tasks takes time and experience to develop.
Always prioritize and organize yourself ahead of time wherever possible. Find what method works best for you personally. Never be afraid to take on new and exciting challenges.
If you can adhere to all of this, you will be setting yourself up for success in the long run. Your future self will thank you for it!
To be the best, you must practice consistently. Leadership exercises are a highly actionable means of improving your organization’s capabilities. Think of them as a series of drills, or a form of training.
The ability to delegate effectively and influence the outcome is a prerequisite for managing others in a meaningful way. Elements of leading are not complicated, though they are a skill that requires practice like any other.