Productivity in the 21st Century

Productivity ain’t what it used to be

You’re probably tired of hearing it, but we are in the middle of an important moment in human history. 

It may seem strange to jump from that statement into a discussion about human productivity, but hear me out. 

Most of us hear ‘productivity’ and think about how to get a few more items crossed off our daily to-do lists. Productivity seems more nuts-and-bolts than the big picture.  

But at its heart, human productivity means whether or not we are doing a good job–a good job at being humans. If we aren’t productive, we aren’t doing the thing we are supposed to be doing. We aren’t producing value. 

How we’ve defined that value has changed significantly over human history. Let’s look back and see how we’ve measured and defined as being productive in different eras. 

Productivity over the eons

While humans were hunter-gatherers (for the first 90 percent or more of our existence), we relied on our ability to understand nature and adapt. Being productive meant finding enough food to survive and protecting the community from dangers. 

Roughly 12,000 years ago, many human societies shifted to agriculture. Humans relied on our ability to do physical work, plan, and get more land. Productivity changed and was now measured by how much food we could cultivate in a given area.  

About 250 years ago, the Industrial Revolution started. Humans relied on their ability to do repeated tasks which were hard for machines to do. Productivity turned into how many items we could manufacture in a given unit of time. 

We entered the Information Age about 50 years ago, which was the first time we could depend solely on our cognitive abilities instead of our physical ones. However, we continued to define productivity-based units processed per time period.

Oh yeah, there’s that too

Then there’s the metric of productivity that hasn’t changed much in 12,000 years, which we don’t like to talk about: wealth (aka power, money, or land). The productivity metrics mentioned earlier still apply to human workers, but ultimately, we’ve always judged those with more wealth to be “doing a better job at life”. In some industrialized cultures, the poor are seen as “lazy”, or “unproductive”.

The robots are here for your productivity

Relatively soon, if not already, we will enter an Age of Automation. Machines, robots, and algorithms will take over common tasks of humans, things we’ve based our productivity on for a long time. 

As that happens, we’ll need to rely on different abilities and create new metrics. Judging human productivity based on the number of units processed in a given amount of time will make everyone seem worthless. A human’s ability to memorize, process information, and make rational decisions will be about as useful as a pair of oxen on a modern farm. 

…and maybe your money too

An Age of Automation not only means an end to human labor as we know it but something much broader. 

Automation will generate an even greater amount of wealth, resulting in two possible outcomes. Either global wealth continues to concentrate in the hands of a few, or it gets distributed out to everyone else. 

Money is a unit of scarcity. Automation can usher in a post-scarcity world where humans no longer need to work in exchange for money. They can still work at tasks and projects they feel important, but don’t have to choose a job just to support their livelihood. 

This would completely change what human productivity means and how we define it. 

Back to the present

This ebook tries to straddle both the futuristic and daily nature of productivity. The change from the old way of measuring productivity to the new won’t be easy or quick. Our current habits and standards were built for the past, not the future. Moving to a new model will feel strange, but it is essential if we are going to build the future we want. 

Like other areas of work, we have to imagine where the future is going and build the road to get there. As you read this, we hope you are inspired to play your part in laying the groundwork. 

The new human productivity

How do we define productivity in a world where machines are doing all the work we used to do?

Certain human abilities will become less useful as machines take over. But just like other major shifts in history, humans still have other skills they can rely on.

Skills like: 

  • creativity
  • reflection
  • strategy
  • boldness
  • compassion
  • inquisitiveness
  • innovation 

These kinds of skills can survive through the Age of Automation. 

If we also imagine a post-scarcity world where everyone’s needs are met and we aren’t choosing our work based on the money we make, that really opens up the possibilities for productivity. 

If we believe that the core of productivity is doing a good job at being human, or producing real value, what are the ways we will judge productivity in the future?

Here are some ideas.

Boldly going where no one has gone before. Exploration will be a great task of the Age of Automation. With time to spare, we can gather more knowledge about the depths of the seas and the far corners of the universe. A productive day becomes one where we travel to a new place and gain knowledge.

Building less oppressive systems. If we build a greater understanding of our connection as humans, we can move beyond tribalism, racism, sexism, classism, and many other forms of oppression. There will be a lot to correct in our world, and a productive day becomes one where we do less harm to each other.

Finding greater sustainability. If the Age of Automation turns out to be great for humans, we will be motivated to make it last as long as possible. Unfortunately, our current never-ending race towards more wealth has led us to strip out all the resources in the world. So, productivity in the future would find ways to reverse those effects and keep things running smoothly.  

Learning and skill building. For all the time we’ve been on the earth, there’s a lot we don’t understand. If aliens asked us, “Why do you guys dream at night?”, our best answer would be, “I dunno, we were too busy working to think about that.” Similarly, there’s a lot of skills that we’ve lost over the years because our time has gone to work (and making money). Productivity in the Age of Automation means we’ll actually have time to study and understand our world better.  

Establishing new connections. Humans have always been good at finding new patterns and connections. In the future, a productive day is one where we meet someone new or build on the discoveries of others. 

When you give humans access to what they need and as much time as they want, productivity takes on a whole new meaning. Doing a good job at being human will not mean how quickly we can do the same thing over and over in an hour, but will be much more grounded in these newly prioritized skills of humans. 

Suddenly, spending a few hours in a coffee shop talking through new understanding of history becomes productive. Leading a group of kids on a trek to discover the start of a creek, or crafting that insightful comedy routine is extremely productive. Mastering an instrument or a language on the verge of extinction might be the most productive thing you can do. 

Imagining what the future metrics of productivity might be can help us start to build that future now. 

The modern barriers (and answers) to the new productivity

Let’s come back to the present for a while. 

Over the last several hundred years, humans have relied more and more on cognitive functions to be productive at work. However, we haven’t done a good job at learning how to optimize our lives to be more productive at knowledge work. We still think that we can push our brains harder to get more out of them, just like we can do to machines. 

Study after study shows that our brains work best when they are not stressed, well-rested, and able to focus on the task at hand. But it is still countercultural to arrange our lives and workplaces around promoting these things. 

Four things we are horrible at 

When it comes to productivity with knowledge work, there are four things that our present society is really, really bad at:

  1. Remembering all the things we need to do 
  2. Actually doing the most important things
  3. Creating time for doing important work
  4. Staying focused despite distractions around us

If productivity in the future will be based on even more specialized cognitive functioning, we need to start learning how to be more productive with our brains now. 

Task management

David Allen says, “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” To achieve great productivity, humans need a way to collect and organize the tasks they want to accomplish to achieve a bigger goal. We have ideas all the time, but if we do not capture them, we cannot consider ourselves very productive. 


One of the reasons for low productivity among knowledge workers is not that they aren’t working, but they aren’t doing the right things. Humans are innately good at prioritizing tasks when they are forced to sit down and rank them, but we do it very sparingly. Productivity in the 21st century will be dependent on our ability to figure out what tasks are better delegated to machines, and what is the best use of our time.  

Time/energy management 

Our modern work schedules have taken our days and split them up into small blocks of time here and there. We don’t have a lot of long dedicated chunks to focus on deep work where we really get important things done. The hours in our work day seem to belong to other people, and even when we get the chance to schedule it, we often don’t do it wisely.  

The most productive work in the future cannot be done in bits and pieces, but needs large swaths of uninterrupted time. Reducing the amount of time we are required to work can help with that, but there’s still a lot to learn. We have yet to build effective systems that reward people who take time to rest and recharge.

Paying attention to the energy we have at different times of the day is one of those under-researched areas which can also yield a lot of new productivity. 


One evolutionary holdover from our hunter-gatherer days that won’t help us in the future is our tendency to focus on the urgent and be distracted by potential threats. We need to start with removing all the harmful external distractions that we’ve recently introduced into our lives in the form of notifications, instant messages, and pings. 

However, even if we remove these things, we often create our own internal distractions. Teaching humans how to focus and pursue a state of flow will become very important to be highly productive in the future. 

Optimizing humans for productivity

Imagine being an advanced alien species (or an AI bot) that discovers humans and wants to contract some of them to do work–using those core human skills that will be most valuable in the 21st century. 

What would they do to get the most out of their investment?

I imagine they would make sure that their humans had:

  • Plenty of sleep and rest
  • Adequate time for leisure activities
  • Minimal levels of bad stress and anxiety
  • Minimal distractions when performing core work
  • Prodding to continuously evaluate the importance of their tasks 
  • Long blocks of time to do work when energy levels are highest

If the machines would do it, why don’t we?

Building a futuristic productive team culture, today

It’s time to focus on what we can do today that will help us get to a more idealized future when it comes to human productivity.

The Age of Automation is not a maybe thing. Many tasks humans have been doing for centuries or more are quickly shifting to machines, and it’s not going to stop or slow down. 

Therefore, as a leader in the workforce, you have the option to either squeeze as much old-style productivity as you can out of the people around you, or become an early adopter and acceptor of the new productivity.

Here are several practical things you can do to start. 

Banish the idea that more time in office equals more work

We need to break the strong connection between work and time. It’s still deeply ingrained in our minds that human workers should be paid per hour or that their pay is tied to sitting at a desk (or logging in from home) for a particular number of hours a day. 

This should strike us as ridiculous. 

In addition to commoditizing time (the only truly limited resource we have), it says that to do more work, you need to put in more time. It’s rare to hear someone way, “Gosh I have some really important things to do this week. I better make sure to get some extra sleep and work out regularly.” Instead, we default to cutting corners in our health and personal lives. 

As a leader, you must make sure your teams know what you really value as productive work, and that you don’t value them just being present.   

Remove stress and anxiety

One of the greatest threats that damages our health and productivity is stress. When our work lives are stressful, it seeps over to our personal lives and health.  

Work shouldn’t be a place where you come to get stressed. It should be a place where you come to be creative, explore, and make a difference. 

When was the last time that stress was actually positively productive at your office? Did you work late nights to release a new feature? Was it really worth all the stress looking back on it?

Business leaders of the next era of productivity will find ways to remove as much stress as possible from their human workers. What can you do now?

Pay a comfortable wage

One of the most practical ways to reduce the stress of your team is to make sure they have enough money to live with some margin. If there are people on your team that struggle to make ends meet and work second or third jobs on the side out of necessity, you are not getting the best out of them. 

We’ve already mentioned the possibility of decoupling work and money. While we aren’t ready to move there entirely, that doesn’t mean we can’t take some small steps to get there. Having a set “minimum basic income” for people working at your company allows them to not live in fear.

Reward with more time off rather than more money

Speaking of money, instead of only using salary hikes as a reward for yearly appraisals, why not offer more time off in lieu of higher pay? One common complaint of workers is that they must either work a 40+ hour work week, or not at all. There isn’t much in between. Holding workers’ salaries steady while asking them to come into the office less is a great way to show them that you want only their best work at the office.

Protect your team from distractions

We are currently in the middle of a tsunami of software vying for everyone’s attention. Many of those tools are engineered to get your team to spend as much time as possible in them. While you need to offer your team the proper tools to get their work done, one of your main considerations should be how often the tool distracts them. 

To maximize productivity, modern workers will need long blocks of time to focus on their work without distractions. Yet, there are very few companies in the world that offer this. Most tacitly expect everyone to be on call, ready to be interrupted at any moment. 

Establish a culture of focus and choose tools that are not invasive. 

Promote and model the importance of rest and disconnecting

As much as you tell your team to take time off and get plenty of rest, if the leadership isn’t doing it, it won’t happen. If the boss never takes a vacation, it makes it feel like it’s not ok. Leadership needs to model taking breaks, vacations, family leave, getting good sleep, and not responding to messages after hours. 

Offering financial benefits like money to spend on vacations, learning a new skill, sabbaticals, and monthly fitness goals are just the start of establishing a new culture of productivity. 

Celebrate new metrics, not old ones

It’s common to hear leaders praise people who get to the office early, leave late, are always available, and put in lots of extra effort. But rarely do we hear praise for the woman who devised, wrote, and automated a successful marketing campaign by noon and then left for the day to volunteer at a conservation project.

Embrace automation

Automation is often promoted as a job killer. Some see it as a way to reduce the bottom line and get rid of human workers. 

However, we actually need to invest more into automation. The work that automated systems are capable of is the stuff that humans shouldn’t be getting good at anymore. When you bring automation into your company, you increase your organization’s ability to produce, and create more margin for humans to work on other things. 

We aren’t going to solve the productivity challenge by running away from technology, but by learning how to work with it. 

Expand who gets these new rewards

Creating a modern productive culture might sound like a great idea, but if we ignore the existing systems that are biased towards those who already have privilege, then we create a further divide between the haves and have nots. 

Offering a well-paying job with plenty of margin and time off to someone who looks like you may mean that this person has more time to research and write books about Viking history. Offering it to a single mother might mean changing the course of an entire generation.

Rethink your growth strategy

David Heinemeier Hansson of Basecamp says that the biggest cause of all the negative parts of contemporary tech culture goes back to “unrealistic, outsized ambition”. When growth is the main thing on your mind, every decision gets filtered through it, no matter what those posters on the wall say about how awesome your culture is. 

Instead of infinite growth, what if your company found a sustainable level to stay at? If you actually set a growth target you can reach instead of just “getting bigger”, then you have time to focus on other goals that are actually more important.

Next-level productivity

The way we’ve defined “doing a good job at work” has changed significantly over the history of humanity. Humans have relied on different skills and abilities to get that work done. 

As we stand on the edge of the Age of Automation, we have a choice. If we drag the old rules of productivity into the future, we’ll end up in a world where humans are truly irrelevant because we won’t be able to compete against machines and systems that will be able to do all the things we used to do. 

However, if we decide to change the metrics of productivity, we can focus on the unique skills we still have and optimize our work life for them. 

It won’t be a fast change, but it will never happen unless we start to make small and big changes in our companies right now. How can you do your part to bring about a better world of productivity for humanity?

Why Your Team Is Just Horrible at Prioritizing Work

Which of these scenarios would you pick as a leader?

  1. A team that never misses assigning a task to be done
  2. A team that always makes the right call on what tasks are the most important
  3. A team that never gets distracted in their focus
  4. A team that has balanced time for solo work and meetings

It may be hard to choose, but if my team always knows what is most important, I can deal with a lot of missed tasks, some distractions, and too many meetings.

Prioritization is one of the four pillars of productivity. You can’t do all the tasks or projects that are on your list on a given day–you have to pick. As Seth Godin says, “infinity is a trap”. And it’s the prioritization of your tasks that determines whether or not your team is successful. 

Prioritization seems like such an easy thing. Most people can look at a list of tasks and determine which ones will make the most impact.

And yet, we consistently mess this up. When you look back on the last year, did your team spend the bulk of their time and money doing the most important thing? Or were there long stretches of time that are all now wasted now because they didn’t have any effect?

As we look to the future of work, teams that have a deep culture of prioritization will stand far apart from those that can’t. Teams that can’t prioritize their work will be stuck running around in circles–staying busy, but never either making an impact or learning.

If knowing how to prioritize is so intuitive, why are we so bad at it? 

8 prioritization traps that teams fall into all the time 

1. Making prioritization decisions too quickly

The Eisenhower matrix is a fantastic model for making prioritization decisions…as long as you take it slow. In the heat of the moment, everything that is urgent also seems important. When your team prioritizes things in a chaotic, fast-paced atmosphere, anything can be justified as important. 

Priority must be given when the atmosphere is cool and low-pressure and when you can be ruthless about cutting down unimportant tasks. 

2. Fighting fires feels good

We get a buzz from handling the urgent. It’s why we check our messages and notifications right before sitting down to do some serious work. It’s like we say, “Is there anything urgent that I can spend my time on first before I do this very important thing?” 

Hell, sometimes we even light fires, or fan sparks into flames to justify the need to put on our firefighter gear. 

Firefighters also get all the glory. We tend to give more praise to the quick fixer on our team than the one who planned and executed a six month long strategy. 

3. Your don’t want people to think you are an asshole 

When you are focused on prioritization, you’ve got to say “no” a lot. And not just to tasks, but to people. Many of those people will say, “What’s the problem? I just need you to do this one thing.” A team that prioritizes their work won’t be the most popular one in the office. If you are leading a highly-focused team, don’t expect to win any congeniality awards. 

4. Doing easier things is easier

Without a clear view of what is important, your team will take the path of least resistance. There’s always this one big task that everyone knows is important, but no one wants to touch because it is so hard to get rolling. 

Doing the easy things feels good because it’s great to end the day crossing 12 things off your list than one. But everytime we focus on the easy stuff first, we open ourselves up to distractions and new emergencies that further delay the important stuff.

5. You want to show nice charts 

Important and innovative work doesn’t usually look great at quarterly business review meetings. You want to be able to show your peers that your team is rocking it, but doing the important work doesn’t mean you have good numbers to show. 

The most important thing you can do might lead to significant failure, but no one wants to put that slide up.

6. No one asks why

Do you have that person on your team who you want to throw in a closet every time you start a planning meeting? You know they will immediately ask, “But why are we doing this?” and mess up the nice charts you had planned. 

Most of your team assumes you have the vision and have already prioritized. But we all need that person who knows we are full of shit sometimes and need to be called out. 

7. You send mixed signals

As the leader, you have a strategy meeting Friday afternoon and decide the most important things to work on next week. Then, on Monday, something comes up and you have to throw a new task or project at them. They think,

Should we do what we all decided was most important? Or this random new task that just came up?

You have not only thrown off their ability to get the important things done but also called into question how seriously you take what is actually important. 

8. Blame it on the bandwidth

When you get to the end of the quarter and realize you’ve had very little impact, it’s tempting to say, “We just didn’t have the bandwidth.” A semi-good leader will hire more people to only work on the important stuff that didn’t happen. A great leader will say, “Why do we have all these people who aren’t doing priority stuff?” 

Bad prioritization always comes back to the leader

When there’s a talented, well-bonded team that’s not having much impact in the organization, the leader should always be held accountable. You can’t blame it on anyone else. If your team struggles with this, it’s not something you can pass off to others. 

…but good prioritization never stays with the leader

It would seem pretty horrible if a leader spent all of her day looking over all the tasks her team members were working on and constantly updating the priority. 

Let’s take it back to easy for a minute. 

We said that prioritizing work is actually pretty intuitive. It doesn’t take an abnormally brilliant person to be able to see what will have the most impact. 

That means everyone else on your team is equally capable of assigning priority as you are. 

So instead of micromanaging the priority of tasks for your team, you need to set up your team so that they can decide on the priority of their work without you. 

A good leader won’t just back off and say, “Ok, you all decide everything now.” You have to make sure your team members have the information, tools, and culture set up so that they can do their best work. 

10 ways to create a team that self-prioritizes work

Here are some prioritization techniques and principles that will help you make a team that can basically run itself. 

1. Be clear on the vision, goal, and metric

When everyone knows without a doubt where you are headed, everyone can see how they can help get there best. As a leader, it’s your job to clarify what the vision of the team is, what metric you’ll use to judge your success, and realistic goals to measure your progress. 

The leader doesn’t mandate these things, but clarifies them and makes sure that everyone is on the same page.

When everyone knows the metric and goal, it becomes much easier for others to see if what they are doing is having an impact. 

2. Priority comes in many flavors

After setting the goal and metric, invite your team to make a list of all the ways you can get there. Then facilitate a conversation to help decide what you should try first. 

  • Which idea is most challenging?
  • Which one has never been tried before?
  • Which one has the most upside?
  • Which one is guaranteed to work?
  • Which one do we know the best and can execute quickly?

When it comes time to choose which ideas to execute, there isn’t a single correct answer. Some options might be more exploratory and likely to fail, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put some effort into them. 

Whoever is working on that idea must believe that it is the most important thing they can do, whether it is exploring new options, or sticking to tried and true methods. 

3. Prioritizing tasks vs. projects

A common trap that leaders fall into is to try to focus on prioritizing their team’s tasks. This dips quickly into micromanagement. Also, it’s exhausting for everyone to check in often and say, “What do I do next?”

Instead of prioritizing tasks, you should focus on prioritizing projects. A project is a collection of related tasks (known and unknown) that help get you to the goal. 

Asking someone, “Did you do that SEO research I asked you about?” is focused on a specific task. Instead, saying, “I really think an SEO strategy is important to help us reach our goals. How is that project going on?” is a much better approach. Team members are in control of how the project gets done and is responsible for the outcome of the project, not just executing the tasks. 

4. Create systems and processes, then automate them

Projects are great for when you aren’t sure the impact a strategy will have on your goal. But once you know that something is working, if it follows a predictable workflow, then creating an automated process is the best path. 

Once you’ve found a system that works, your team should be able to create a process that runs on its own. You can identify lots of parts of the process where a machine or system would be more efficient or accurate than a human. 

The goal of automation is to be able to get your team to start new projects. You want them to move on and ask, “What’s the next thing that might have a great impact for us?” If your team is stuck only on prioritizing tasks, they’ll never be able to move out of them and explore new imaginative areas

5. Equip them with the right tools

If you want your team to self-prioritize work and manage their own projects and processes, you need to give them the tools to do it. Highly productive teams need to be able to quickly build, edit, and dismantle structures around their tasks, projects, and processes. 

But this doesn’t mean that every person on your team needs to have three separate licenses to highly advanced task, project, and process management tools. 

Instead, look for a digital workplace that gives team members the tools they need to organize any kind of work that comes their way. 

6. Protect your team from the urgent

As soon as your team is working on their priorities, lots of urgent things will come up that seem like they need to be done. As a leader, your job is to create a protective shield around your team and clearly communicate to them and others that they are working on very important work and shouldn’t be distracted. 

  • Don’t reward firefighting
  • Don’t be afraid to be seen as unhelpful
  • Don’t be a slave to whomever walks in the door

If you feel that your team is being distracted by others, ask very clearly why. If the overall company vision is no longer valid, you need to realign all of your priorities. Otherwise, fight hard to let your team focus on their priority work. 

7. Say, “Don’t do that”

Highly productive teams are unique in what they don’t do, not what they do. Your job as the leader is to continuously remind your team what everyone has collectively decided is the most important. Help team members who seem to be stuck in a trap of doing things that only have moderate impact instead of the truly impactful items. 

8. Stop doing things you don’t think are important (and see who notices)

Here’s a great trick from our podcast with David Burkus to determine if an existing task is really that important.

Stop doing it for a while and see who notices. 

If everything goes to hell and you’ve got people screaming at you, then that was probably an important task. 

If no one says anything and it takes a few months to notice, then it’s possible that no one needed to do that task anyway. Burkus says, “You’d be amazed at how much work you do simply because it’s always been done even though no one really needs it.”

9. Bring up the unspoken

Another job that falls on the leader is to speak the unspoken. Name the elephants in the room. Stop and ask why. Mention the thing that everyone is thinking but not talking about. 

It may be related to an underperforming team member, or a bad habit you’ve gotten into. 

Denial is the enemy of prioritization. As soon as you ignore something, you can’t work on it anymore. The leader’s job is to find it and talk about it. 

10. Celebrate important successes and failures

When your team does something that makes a huge positive impact on the vision, make sure to celebrate. Don’t just treat it as obvious and business as usual. Take time to recognize the work that people have done (and note the things they ignored to stay focused).

But not all prioritized tasks will end up in success. You may be exploring a task that failed to have an impact. Celebrate that as well and make sure to clearly document what you learned from the experience. Recognize that person an expert on the topic and thank them for boldly going where you hadn’t been before. 

You can do this (and so can everyone else)

As we’ve said before, nearly everyone is pretty good at prioritizing work. As long as you know where you are going, finding the best route on the map isn’t that hard. 

Being able to prioritize your work isn’t a significant advantage. 

Actually doing it is. The biggest advantage to building a team that knows how to prioritize is that most teams don’t.

But teams that prioritize their work only for efficiency and productivity will become specialists in things that will soon be irrelevant. If you are only focused on doing what you already do, but faster and cheaper, you won’t have much of a future. 

Instead, as you prioritize, keep your head up and recognize the importance of being flexible to what is coming down the road. Treat it as high priority to send out explorers who can find new patterns or come back with critical information to help you adapt to the future. 

Bravely focus on the future and use your team to find the best way there!

My Top 5 Productivity Supervillains

Every superhero has recurring supervillains. Sometimes, they’re easily defeated by the hero, but as the story moves on, they become more aware of the hero’s weaknesses, and cleverly exploit them. The villains are never fully vanquished and nearly always find a way to resurface again and again. 

In the same way, your productivity at work is usually attacked by the same villains over and over. You may have a completely unscheduled and distraction-free day, but still not accomplish much if your villains get the best of you. 

Your unique set of supervillains are based on your personality, your physical workplace, your digital workplace, and many other factors. 

Like the comics, you can never completely get rid of your productivity supervillains. They can only be respected, and managed, not solved, and you must always be on your guard. One small opening is enough for the supervillain to come in and take control over a whole season of work.

In my own life, since I can’t forever destroy my supervillains, I find it helpful to name and recognize them early on. Each bad guy takes a different approach; Batman has a very different strategy of fighting Two-Face than he does the Riddler. Naming your villains and talking openly about how to fight them goes a long way in taking back control over your productivity. 

Here are the top five recurring supervillains that are most likely to destroy my productivity at work. 

1. Doing the easy stuff first

When I sit down with my task management system to decide what to prioritize, I am always drawn to the quick and easy tasks first. This supervillain tells me that I should build up momentum and clear my schedule to do the bigger tasks later. 

I fall for this one all the time, and *spoiler alert* I almost never end up finishing those big tasks later on in the day. If I don’t do them first, they don’t get done.

I have this one recurring task to do that takes about ten minutes. If I miss doing it, it’s not a big deal. But that ten minutes is too enticing, and I almost never miss doing that task while I push off bigger things.

On days when I lose to this villain, I feel like I’m just treading water and never moving forward. On the flip side, if I have a day when I get my big stuff done, but miss out on the small things, I never feel bad, because I know I’ll get the small stuff done tomorrow. 

How I fight this villain: Recognize that I can make any task seem important, and consciously choose to do the hardest task first. 

2. Checking communication too often

It’s a deep part of my personality to want to be helpful and have other people like me. One way I do this is by making sure I’m available to others. Turning off all my notifications seems rude and selfish sometimes. So, I keep checking messages and email frequently just to be sure that no one is waiting on me. 

But once I open up those floodgates, it’s hard to stop. I get sucked into conversations that go on forever and end up losing a bunch of time just doing communication triage.

How I fight this villain: In the end, people are going to be more happy with me if I actually get big things done rather than just respond to immediate requests. Also, I have to recognize that I disappoint others more if I respond immediately and say I’ll do something, but then push that task off for several days. The longer I put off checking communication, the better I do.   

3. Ignoring energy management

My productivity villains tend to strike hardest when my energy is down. If I’m feeling strong, I tend to be able to fight off their attacks pretty easy. But when I feel weak, then I’m much more likely to give in. When my energy is low, I can almost feel myself looking forward to being drawn into this villain’s web and clickbait all of a sudden looks really enticing. 

I do a lot of editing for other writers. Editing a bad article not only takes time, but it completely drains me and makes me highly vulnerable to this attack. 

My work day starts at 5:30am. My energy is usually lowest at about 1pm-2pm, or just after lunch. I find it really hard to concentrate at that time. I’m also a pretty munchy person in general and working at home means that I’m only 50 feet away from grabbing food any time I want. 

How I fight this villain: I have to be very selective about the writers I work with so that I don’t end up doing much editing on their work. Since I know the afternoon is hard on me, I do best if I either take a break and do some physical activity, or push off my simple tasks until that time. Sometimes ending my day an hour early and then coming back for an hour in the evening works well as long as my schedule allows it. For the munchies, limiting quick snacks that are in the house, and eating full meals helps a bit. 

4. Bad meetings

A great meeting gives me a lot of clarity on what tasks I need to do and their priority. A bad meeting drains the life out of me and makes me want to not talk to people ever again. Also, meetings take a different mindset than solo work, and it’s really hard to be productive when I’m constantly switching between them. 

How I fight this villain: There are some bad meetings I can’t get out of, but I can control a lot of my meetings. I make sure there is a clear agenda, clear action items, and that we connect on a human level. I’ve also found that grouping all of my meetings on the same days helps to both prevent that mindset switching, and also provides me with some meeting-free days when I can focus on solo work. 

5. Personal stuff

I keep all of my personal email separate from my work stuff, but when your workspace is digital, you are never more than a few keystrokes away from anything. The voice in my head reminds me of a personal task I need to get done, and convinces me that 1) I can do it quickly, and 2) I’ll forget it if I don’t do it now. 

How I fight this villain: Similar to any other area of work, I need to use a separate task management system to keep all these thoughts when they pop up, and then block out time towards the end of the day to do them all at the same time. 

Who are your supervillains?

In my experience, I’ve found that time management and productivity are extremely subjective. The supervillains I face aren’t the same as the ones you do. While I can pick up a few time management tips from other people, in the end I have to have my own unique plan. 

Great time management is all about being intensely self-aware. Once you identify your supervillains and figure out how they affect you, you have a much better chance of defeating them. If they go unnamed, they become generic things like laziness or an inability to focus, which are much harder to fight. 

Supervillains also never die. You can’t just kill off Lex Luthor, the Joker, or Magneto once and for all. They always find a way back. Similarly, whatever your productivity supervillains are, you will probably always struggle with them. They will win some days, but the more honest you are about them, the better you can do at recognizing their tricks and overcoming them. 

So, who are your supervillains?

How to Pull Off a 4 Day Workweek

The four-day workweek is back in the news after Microsoft Japan announced the results of their experiment earlier this year. A four-day workweek has been a talking point for more than a decade, but this case is particularly interesting because:

  • It comes from Microsoft, a huge brand not known for its innovative work culture
  • It comes from Japan, another huge brand not known for great working conditions
  • They claimed a 40% increase in productivity

Yeah. That’s a bit of a shocker. 

But before you jump into thinking “If Microsoft…in Japan…can pull this off, we should too!”, let’s take a closer look. 

A brief history of the workweek

The seven-day week is one of the few arbitrary time measurements humans use that isn’t connected to nature. Years, months, and days are all tightly coupled with cosmic phenomena. But the number of days in a week is manmade. 

The seven day week (usually with one day off for either religious or market functions) started with either Jewish or Babylonian cultures close to the 6th century BC. It spread to as far as India, China, and Japan. By the 4th or 5th century BC in Christendom, Sundays became the standard day off. 

During the turn of the 20th century was the first mention of expanding rest to more than a day. While he wasn’t the first to offer two full days off, Henry Ford made big news in 1926 when he shut down his factories on Saturdays and didn’t cut wages. Similar to how he doubled his workers salaries, he felt like offering additional time off was a way to look after the overall health of employees, while also creating a larger class of people who had the time and money to enjoy things like automobiles. It also ended up improving productivity at his plants. 

It took a few decades for the five on/two off system to spread, but it soon became accepted across the US and other parts of the world. 

New technological advancements led people like John Maynard Keyes and then-Vice President Richard Nixon to assume that the workweek would just keep getting shorter. 

Experiments with the four day workweek

Before Microsoft Japan, many companies have tried the pattern of four days on/three days off. Some, like governments in Utah and Slingshot SEO, have tried four ten-hour days. Others, like Jason Fried and DHH of Basecamp work a 32-hour week during the summer, and 40 hours the rest of the year.

Online education platform TreeHouse has a 32-hour week year-round. Perpetual Guardian, an estate planning company in New Zealand, has been one of the more vocal supporters of the 32-hour, four-day week. In fact, their founders, Andrew Barnes and Charlotte Lockhart started a separate community just to encourage other businesses to try it. The British Trade Union Congress has been advocating for a four day week for a few years now. 

Lasse Rheingans, who runs a consulting firm in Germany has experimented with a 5 hour working day, reducing the workweek down to 20 hours.

Thinking about a 4 day workweek?

There are lots of obvious benefits of a shorter workweek:

  • Easier recruiting 
  • Higher retention rates
  • Better employee morale
  • Smaller environmental impact
  • Fewer sick days
  • More time to care for children and elderly family members
  • Lower operating expenses

But what about productivity?

At the heart of the shorter workweek debate is if business owners can still get the same level of output on a shorter schedule. 

Parkinson’s Law states that work expands or contracts to the amount of time given. With advances in technology, it’s possible to get the same work done in less time, but very few have been willing to cut the hours. Jason Fried says, “When there’s less time to work, you waste less time. When you have a compressed workweek, you tend to focus on what’s important. Constraining time encourages quality time.”

Lasse Rheingans, the guy with the five-hour workday likes the challenge of getting more done in less time. He said, “An an eight-hour day you can mask problems and cheat yourself. This simply isn’t possible within a five-hour day. It’s merciless. It highlights exactly which areas aren’t working and what to take care of—it’s like holding a magnifying glass to every flaw.”

Perpetual Guardian’s study noted equal productivity between a four and five day workweek. Microsoft Japan is talking about 40% increased productivity after reducing the work time by 20%! 

But the answer to greater productivity is not just to slash the hours.   

How to do the four day week right

If you tell everyone to stop showing up on Fridays, you may have some happy employees for a while, but you’ll likely run into trouble down the road if you haven’t planned for it. Here are four key areas that you need to think through.

1. Get your motivation straight

Why do you want to reduce hours? Are you hoping for better productivity? Do you want your employees to be happier? Are you trying to reduce congestion in the office or lower operating expenses?

Your motivation will lead to the metric that will help you gauge the success of your experiment. 

Treehouse CFO Michael Watson said their motivation started from the thought, “We want to take care of our people.” In that case, strict measures of productivity may not be the right tool to use. 

If you are serious, you may want to engage a consultant or local university to help you evaluate the effectiveness of the experiment. 

2. Be employee-led

As with most cultural decisions, mandating things from the top down isn’t a good idea. You should talk with employees and get their insights and feedback. Do they want a four-day week, or would they rather continue to work five, but with fewer hours? How would it improve their lives? What other benefits might be there?

Employees should also think about solutions for how to overcome challenges. At Lassee Rheingans’s consulting company, they don’t allow mobile phones in the office and block social networks for their 5 hour workday in order to increase productivity. If you still need to meet customer’s needs throughout the week, can you work in teams to make sure all days are covered? Does it make more sense to use a seasonal approach like Basecamp?

Andrew Barnes of Perpetual Guardian says, “”The right attitude is a requirement to make it work–everyone has to be committed and take it seriously for us to create a viable long-term model for our business.” Employees must be involved in how it is implemented and monitored.

3. Four days on

Much like remote work, a four-day week is not something you can just try tomorrow. It should be the next logical step on a path your company is already on. If you have already built a culture around employee wellbeing, automation, digital workplaces, and productivity, then transitioning to a four-day week, or reducing hours makes sense. But if you haven’t done the work to prepare your team, then it’s not likely to succeed. 

A four day workweek is not something you can just start. Think about the culture you have now. 

  • How efficient are you? 
  • How well do you use digital tools? 
  • How often are decisions delayed because you are waiting on someone? 
  • Where is the most friction in your daily interactions?
  • When’s the last time you stopped having a meeting because you didn’t need it?
  • How much busy work does your team do that could be automated?
  • How much time is wasted on social media tools?
  • Do you naturally praise people who get more done in less time? Or do you reward the workaholics?

Treehouse CEO Ryan Carson said two reasons that his company was able to make the move to four days was that they had already eliminated internal email and managers. They also had a strong culture about unnecessary meetings. 

4. Think about the three days off

One very interesting aspect of Microsoft Japan’s approach was how they encouraged people to use their extra time off. They offered money to employees to do various things like:

  • Take a family trip
  • Learn a new skill
  • Volunteer somewhere
  • Visit another office and learn from it

You don’t want to put unnecessary parameters around how people can spend their free time, but you can encourage them to use it in a way that encourages rest, creativity, and service. 

The goal is not for your employees to have time to take up a second job, but to enjoy life, take care of children or family members, and be better humans. If you care for the whole person, you want to make sure that the three days off are spent on things that revitalize the mind and body. 

Take the next step

Ryan Carson gives this challenge, “Are you going to talk about how it would be nice to work less? Or are you actually going to do something about it?” The four day workweek may be the next loonshot–an idea everyone is crazy until it isn’t (ht Safi Bahcall). 

Many thinkers expect the US to be the last country to adopt these kinds of changes because of an unhealthy obsession with work and getting more money for luxury rather than leisure. 

But as a leader, you have the power to make a change. Why not start with experimenting with a lighter workweek? 

Thinking about a four-day workweek should just be the start. Once you realize that you could slash off a day, you start to wonder if it’s not a better idea to decouple the idea of work and time altogether. Or you realize that the whole concept of a workweek is something you can rebuild from the ground up.

Bill Jensen of Simpler Work says, “The real shift isn’t four days or five. That’s using yesterday’s framework to build the future of work. The real shifts are in leadership mindsets and in building completely new metrics for, and new ways of thinking about, productivity, efficiency, and effectiveness. In an AI era, where so many tasks will be automated and run by algorithms, productivity must be completely reimagined to include how teammates leverage their humanness in completely new ways.”

It’s easy to look at history and find that the workweek has always been reducing, and it’s almost always been a good thing. You can either be a pioneer in leading the way for better worker rights and wellbeing, or stick to the old ways. We think it’s time for a little WorkMinus.

10 Must-Read Time Management Books to Get the Most Out of Your Day

There are lots and lots of productivity books out there. To read them all would be…well…a waste of time. 

The good news is that most of the books out there agree on the same principles. They are all preaching some form of the same message.

The best productivity book is the one that resonates with you and that you follow. But if you are like me, you sometimes need a shot in the arm once in a while. Or, sometimes it’s nice to use a different tool for the same job now and again. 

Older books used to only focus on productivity in the context of work, but most modern books also include your non-working hours as well.

Productivity and time management books fall along the four productivity pillars pretty well. They specialize in one of these areas: 

  • Task management: Your brain is for having ideas; use technology for managing and executing them.
  • Prioritization: Don’t waste your time doing stuff that doesn’t matter.
  • Focus: Every day is a fight against internal and external distractions.
  • Time/energy management: Your day and body has natural rhythms that you can use to your advantage.

Here are 10 of the best books on productivity. 

1. Getting Things Done by David Allen

Productivity pillars: Task management and prioritization

David Allen is to productivity what Seth Godin is to marketing. It is possible to be productive/be a good marketer without reading their work, but do you really want to take that risk? 

Most of David Allen’s work comes down to clarity. Most people have a foggy sense of what they need to be doing, and an even hazier sense of how to do it, and are in total darkness to know if they finished it. 

Here are some of the basic principles of GTD:

  • Turn all the abstract goals into concrete tasks. 
  • Break big tasks down into small tasks. 
  • Define ‘done’ and ‘doing’. 
  • Reduce the number of open loops and promises that leave you feeling anxious and stressed. 
  • Your mind is for having ideas, not for holding them. 

If you’ve ever been serious about productivity and time management in your life, you need to read this book. Only the most serious productivity geeks will implement the entire system, but there’s a lot of value in just being aware of the basics. 

2. Eat That Frog by Brian Tracy

Productivity pillar: Prioritization

This is another classic. 2 hours reading quickly through this book is time well spent. 

The book is based on a proverb that is likely misattributed to Mark Twain:

“If the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog, you can go through the day with the satisfaction of knowing that that is probably the worst thing that is going to happen to you all day long.”

Brian Tracy uses the metaphor of the frog being your biggest, most important task. Get it done first and then the rest of your day will be good. If you have to eat two frogs, go for the bigger/uglier one first. 

At its heart, this book is about prioritization and starting at the top of the list. Tracy says, “Your ability to choose between the important and the unimportant is the key determinant of your success in life and work.”

3. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

Productivity pillar: Focus

This book is geared toward those whose work is more creative (e.g. writing, art, design) but we all have a little bit of creative in us, don’t we?

Pressfield names a common enemy called the Resistance. The Resistance is the thing that accompanies any creative pursuit. It says you aren’t good enough, you can finish later, you don’t need to do anything today, you’ve done enough, etc. The Resistance includes all the internal and external distractions you face in life. 

“You think the resistance isn’t real? The resistance will bury you.” 

First, you must recognize that the Resistance is a sign that you are doing something good. To combat the Resistance, Pressfield says you must turn from being an amateur to a professional, and listen to the Muse. If it doesn’t make sense, read the book. It’s short. 

4. Deep Work by Cal Newport

Productivity pillar: Focus, time management

This book makes a sharp distinction between deep work and shallow work. Deep work is cognitively demanding and requires a tremendous amount of focus. Shallow work can be done while you’ve got Netflix playing in the background. 

Newport says that:

  1. Very few people are good at deep work.
  2. Being good at deep work is where the real value is. 
  3. The more you do shallow work, the worse you get at deep work. 

He says that you need to structure your day so that you spend the most amount of time possible in a deep work state. When you jump back and forth between tasks, bits of residue follow you from one to the next. It takes time to settle into that other work without the distractions. 

Newport has other books on Digital Minimalism and other similar topics. But the thing I like the most about Cal Newport is that he takes his own advice about not coming out of deep work so seriously that he gave a friendly denial to our invitation to come on the podcast until he finished his book, Digital Minimalism

5. 168 Hours by Laura Vandercam

Productivity pillar: Time management

Laura Vandercam actually has several books about productivity: Off the Clock, I Know How She Does It, and Juliet’s School of Possibilities. They all focus on how you can get the most out of the time you have.  

Everyone thinks they don’t have enough time to do the things they want to do, but Vandercam says we’ve got plenty of time. If you try to do everything, you’ll always feel behind. But if you can focus on your core work, you’ll have plenty of time to get it done. 

Vandercam says most people have no idea how they spend their time. Similar to a food journal, she recommends keeping a time journal so that people can actually see where they have waste in their day and unnecessary activities. 

I really like that this book focuses on weeks. Trying to be productive every day can be really hard, but if you look at an entire week, it’s short enough that you can start over fresh again, but long enough to give you some momentum, while also hiding a few bad days here and there. 

6. The One Thing by Gary Keller

Productivity pillar: Prioritization

This book is a nice expansion on the adage, “Success is about doing the right thing, not doing everything right.”

Keller says that we need to focus on fewer things. Just do the one thing that really makes all the difference, and everything else will turn out ok. 

While we can all agree, finding that one thing can be very challenging. We see many tasks as equal, we believe we have enough willpower to bulldoze through anything, and we can keep multiple things going at once. 

Keller says all that is wrong and we need to choose the one thing that matters most and give it all the time it demands. 

7. The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker

Productivity pillar: Time management and prioritization

This is a classic book that everyone entering the workplace should read. Drucker advises executives to be as accountable for their time as they are for their budgets. He says to consolidate your time into the largest possible units, and advocating for working from home one day a week. Drucker says meetings should be the exception rather than the rule and we should focus mostly on results. 

Prioritization is also a key topic. He urges executives to answer this question to their managers, “What are the contributions for which this organization should hold you accountable?” Like others after him, Drucker says to focus on strengths and where you deliver top results. 

8. 18 Minutes by Peter Bregman

Productivity pillar: Focus, time management

Peter Bregman has given us a lot of ways to be better leaders (like being emotionally courageous), but there’s no doubt that time management and focus is a big one. 

Like others, Bregman advocates for doing fewer things and focusing on your strengths. He calls into question motivation, saying that you don’t really need that much, just enough to get you started. As long as you don’t spend a lot of time switching between tasks, you will be fine. 

The formula for the title of his book is:

  • 5 minutes at the start of the day to plan
  • 1 minute every hour to pause and reset (8 minutes total)
  • 5 minutes at the end of the day to reflect and make changes

I really like the idea of pauses and it’s easy to get distracted in the middle of something. Scheduling in a pause lets to keep in check if you are doing the right thing. 

9. How to Live on 24 Hours a Day by Arnold Bennett

Productivity pillar: Time management

This is the oldest book on the list, dating back to 1908. Bennett’s message is just as clear and apt now as it was then. We all get the same 24 hours and we can’t save it. You’ll never have more time than you do right now, so focus on the important stuff. 

While the basic principles of the book sound very familiar, there are a few interesting warnings that he offers:

  • Don’t insist that other people follow your productivity program. Everyone has unique needs.
  • Don’t become a slave to your own program. Make sure it is strong enough to keep you accountable, but flexible enough to give you space to live. 
  • Living from task to task isn’t really living. Don’t try to do everything. Be realistic in your limits.
  • Start any new system slow. Don’t overdo it at the start.

10. Indistractable by Nir Eyal

Productivity pillar: Focus and time management

This is one of the best books out there on learning about how to handle distractions. 

Eyal says that the key to living a focused life is to learn to deal with discomfort. We get distracted because we get uncomfortable and go out seeking a fix.

Instead of indulging in distractions, or feeling guilty about them, Eyal says that we should observe them and allow them to dissolve. We should examine what lead up to the distraction and explore it curiously. Rather than saying, “No, you can’t check Facebook now,” allow yourself the permission to check it, but only after 10 minutes. Usually over that time, the need will dissipate.

He also focuses on the importance of identity and promises you make to yourself. Rather than saying, “I’m not going to look at my phone for the next hour,” Eyal suggests saying, “I’m not the kind of person who needs to check his phone every hour.” That’s a much more positive, aspirational statement and much more likely to help us. 

Eyal says, “Time management is pain management.” If you can learn to be uncomfortable, you will be able to get a lot more done. 

Missed one?

I usually read 1-2 productivity books a year to refresh my mind on what’s important. Most of the ideas in these books aren’t something you couldn’t figure out on your own, but the authors present the material in a way that encourages you to take a fresh start. 

Everyone has their own favorite productivity book. What’s yours? Tag @WorkMinus on LinkedIn and we’ll add it to the list!

Can You Love Time Management Apps Too Much?

You know you’re serious about time management when you start researching apps and tools.  

For some people, the idea of setting up multiple timers throughout your day seems oppressive and way too robotic. But to many of us, there’s a lot of freedom in time management.

At its heart, time management is being willing to say that we need help managing our day. I got serious about time management for many reasons. 

  • I wasn’t giving enough time to the truly important tasks
  • I was giving too much time to small tasks and communication triage
  • I wanted to be able to limit my working hours
  • I wanted to feel better at the end of the day
  • I wanted to avoid distractions
  • I want to increase my capacity at work to be able to handle more high level things

I knew what tasks were the highest priority, but I still found myself struggling with managing my energy and time. 

time management apps

Do you really need time management apps?

We turn to time management apps because we don’t do a good job of managing time by ourselves. We experience time as infinite and finite at the same time. It seems like a day is never-ending, and that we will live forever. Yet we know that there is only a limited about of time in a day, and that one day we will die. 

Time management apps help us apply the principles of time management into our daily lives, recognizing that it is hard for us to do it on our own. 

What are time management apps?

Time management apps try to help you take control of your day by merging together how you spend your daily hours and keeping track of your most important tasks. What type of time management app you need is dependent on the other systems that you have already built around you. 

Timers only

These types of time management apps are simply just a clock. It might count up, or count down; you might have a lot of flexibility over it, or very little. Apps like these are for people who already have an effective task management system, and just need a way to measure and track time. 

Timer + task management

These apps are more involved as they add the functionality of time tracking along with task management and prioritization. As you blend these two things, you are less likely to find the perfect app since you have one set of preferences for timing and another for tasks. But there are some systems out there that work well for people. 

Timer + task + calendar

Finally, some time management apps try to go all the way and add a calendar function as well. All three are essential to good time management, but if you try to combine three sets of preferences, it even less likely that you’ll find the ideal app for you. 

If you are serious about time management, you will have a good system for all three of these things. If you happen to find an app that does them all the way you want it, that’s fantastic. If not, you’ll need to maintain three separate apps, which isn’t impossible, but not always ideal. 

After hours?

Most time management apps are built for productivity around work, but some of them also try to extend to your personal life as well. As you are looking for the right app for you, decide if you are only trying to do time management at work, or for every hour of your day. 

Billing or productivity?

You may think about time management apps as a way to be more productive, but some people need a time management app primarily for billing purposes. If you are a freelancer who bills hourly, or you need to track time for your entire team based on projects, you’ll need something dedicated for that. Many time management tools can help with both billing and general productivity, but they will usually do one better than the other. 

Reflective or empowering?

Lots of time management apps out there are built to show you how you spent your day. They give a lot of insights to reflect accurately where your time goes. Other apps are purely built for putting you in control of how you are going to spend the next hours that you have. The reflective side is good when you are just starting out, or are using it for billing. But if you already know your style and have a plan, you want something that streamlines your work better. 

Teams or individual?

Many time management tools are marketed to track your entire team’s productivity, especially when you are billing for an entire project. However, some of these can feel very much like you are spying on teammates and are built on the premise that you can’t trust them to spend their time well. My only motivation is improving my personal productivity, so I stay away from apps that offer team tracking capabilities. 

Questions to ask before using a time management tool

How much control do you have over your day?

Time management apps work best for people who are in control over their own day, for example, someone who stays at home to work on a novel. On the other side, if you are a kindergarten teacher, handle support tickets, or spend every day in an open office where you are constantly being pulled into impromptu meetings, you won’t get as much value from it. 

Where will you use the app?

Is it on your desktop? On your phone? Tablet? Browser? This is important because each app store is going to have a lot of different options. What works well for running in the background on your operating system may not have an option elsewhere. Your needs may be very different if you are on the go a lot instead of behind a desk. 

Who’s in charge?

Some time management tools try to dictate what you should spend your time on by sending you reminders and notifications for what you should be doing at any moment. Others merely let you track the time and enforce your own priorities. If you already have a solid plan for how you want to spend your time, you want something that will serve you. If you feel lost and need help managing your time, you want something that will be more authoritative. 

4 key dynamics of a time management app

Regardless of what type of app you want and how you answered the questions above, the best  time management apps will have these characteristics.

1. Flexible

How flexible you want the tool depends on how much control you want to give it. In my style of work, I want full control to be able to set a timer at any moment for any length of time. If you subscribe to the Pomodoro technique, then you have less flexibility over starting and stopping the timers. 

2. Unobtrusive

A time management tool should be running in the background. It shouldn’t dominate your day or your desktop. You only want to think about the app when a timer buzzes and it’s time to move on to the next thing. 

3. Quick and easy

Aside from getting it set up initially, you shouldn’t spend much time with you time management app. It should be as simple as clicking a button and starting to work. If you find yourself always inside the app and messing with things and entering details, then it’s really distracting from what it should be doing. Since I only want a timer, I want to spend no more than five seconds setting it up each time. If you need to document and track, that should also be quick and intuitive. 

4. Tracking

I’m not big on tracking my data about how I use my time. Since my main motivation is feeling more productive, I don’t need the app to tell me whether it is a good day or a bad one. But, if your goal is to actually spend more time on a particular task or advance towards a goal, then seeing that data at the end of the week or month is great. Of course, if you are using the app for billing, then you need some more advanced tracking and reporting features. 

Time management apps I’ve tried

Task Timer 

Shockingly, this has been my go-to timer app for more than a few years. It’s a Chrome extension, so it doesn’t run on mobile or really on any other browser. Even when I switched to using Safari as a browser for some time, I continued to use Chrome only to run this app. 

The unique thing about this app is that it counts up, not down. I set goals for each day about how much time I want to spend on a few particular projects, and then set the timer when I’m on that project. The main reason it has been so enduring for me is its flexibility. Even as I try different time management techniques, I find that it is always helpful. 

Red Hot Timer

This is an app only for MacOS X. This one counts down instead of up. I use it along with the other timer to give me an idea of 45 minute sprints throughout the day. It’s super fast to set and very flexible.  

Pomodoro Timers 

There are many in this category with names like Be Focused, Focus Booster, Flow, Focus, Focus To-Do, and Tomato One. All of them follow the same Pomodoro principles. I stopped using them after a short time because I wanted more control. Most of them don’t let you stop a sprint early or quickly set a custom amount of time. You are locked into whatever time you configured at the start. That said, if you can implement the Pomodoro technique completely, they are a great option. 

Rescue time

This app works in the background to monitor how you spend your time. I found it to be helpful when first analyzing what takes your focus most of the day. However, I didn’t find it as useful for implementing my specific time management strategy. It’s a great time management tool for anyone who is serious about starting out with these concepts and wants an accurate view of what their day is like. Plus, their blog is killer


This is one of the very few cross-platform time management apps out there. It has mobile apps, desktop apps, and a Chrome extension. So, if you are on the go, this is one of the best options you can choose. It is definitely built primarily for tracking billing hours, and it’s more for team management, so if that’s not a focus for you, it can be distracting. 


Harvest is very similar to Toggl, in that it is cross-platform, and built for billing and teams. It’s got a lot of insights built in, which can be good if you are trying to analyze what is going wrong. It wasn’t a good fit for me as it was built for teams and for reporting on how you spend your time rather than giving you the tools to take control. 

Time Doctor

This is one of the more intense time trackers out there that also incorporates task management. For me, it is a bit too intrusive and nanny-like. It markets itself as a tool to “ensure your team is working productively” by grabbing screenshots, which is a bit too invasive for my taste.

Find your time management app

There are lots of other tools out there and more being added every day. What works for you probably won’t work for your friend, and it all depends on your situation. I need something sleek and unobtrusive that allows me to just track time and stay on task. Others need something more robust that can track an entire team’s work for billing purposes. Whatever your goal, you can probably find the right tool for you. 

10 Time Management Tips You Haven’t Tried Yet

Here are some of the tried and tested time management techniques that will help make your day more productive.

Productivity Starts With Knowing Your Limits

The first hard truth of productivity is that you can’t do as much as you think you can. 

You can make hundreds of calls a day. You can close dozens of deals. You can write thousands of lines of code. You can recruit dozens of candidates. You feel invincible and immortal in your mind. 

But statistically speaking, you are average.

You inflate what you are capable of. You aren’t an outlier. You don’t scale the same way a computer does. You are, alas, a human. It’s easy to ignore median output and assume that you are an incredible exception that works in a flow state, at will, ad infinitum. 

But as a human, you have built-in limitations. These limitations are physical, mental, social, and chronological. Until you recognize those limitations, you’ll never feel productive; you’ll always assume that you could be doing more. The first step to being truly productive is to have an honest assessment of what you are realistically capable of doing.

Physical limitations

There are limits to what your body is capable of doing–both in one-time activities (e.g. pulling an allnighter), and over weeks, seasons, and years. Your body requires regular, quality sleep to function correctly. You need to eat properly and allow your body to digest the food. You need to maintain your body with regular exercise. You will face the limitation of sickness once or twice a year. Your body will respond negatively to repeated stress. If you travel a lot, that takes an additional toll on how productive you can be.

Think about the times you thought you could just work through the night on a project, skip a meal, or relied on ridiculous amounts of caffeine or other drugs to keep going. What about the seasons when you got so busy that you quit exercising or eating well? 

If you were to go back and judge your productivity during those times, you would probably find that you weren’t much more productive than seasons where you treated your body right. 

Accepting your physical limitations means acknowledging that these shortcuts are actually detrimental to your productivity.

Mental limitations

For most of humanity’s existence, ‘work’ has meant relying on our body and mind working together, whether as a hunter-gatherer or an early farmer. Once the industrial revolution came about, our bodies were no longer a match for the machines. But, we were able to create and move to an enormous amount of jobs that are based mostly only on our brains. In fact, we can be ‘productive’ knowledge workers while letting our bodies rot.

But our brains have limitations. Just like the rest of the body, the brain isn’t meant to work for hours on end; it requires breaks, variety, rest, and maintenance.

When you add in the required breaks, it’s unlikely that you have much more than five or six hours of highly productive mental work in you every day. Sujan Patel, who runs nine companies, admits that he only gets in six hours on a great day. When you try to go beyond that, your work becomes sluggish and you grow increasingly inefficient.

Accepting your mental limitations means acknowledging that you have a limit on how much mental work you can do in a day, and intentionally providing your brain with rest and other activities. 

Social limitations

Hopefully, you have people in your life whom you care about. These people will need you from time to time. 

You might be the mother or father of young children, or the child of rapidly aging parents, which both require a lot of time and energy. Your spouse needs you to spend time decompressing and talking about the day. 

Emergencies happen and you may need to take a trip to the hospital or make a meal for someone. You promised the kids a camping trip over the summer. Your friends plan a week-long fishing expedition. 

The truth is we cannot function without these human interactions. 

We usually sum up social limitations with the phrase “Life happens.” The more people you know, the more chances that these social limitations will be present in your life. Social limitations are a great reminder that we are much more than our jobs. You shouldn’t feel bad about not hitting your numbers at the office the same week that your cousin got married and you decided to fly out a day early to spend some extra time with family. These are sacred, human events and we shouldn’t look down on them. 

Chronological limitations

In a world that feels infinite, it’s easy to fall into the trap that we think our time here is infinite as well. But we need to constantly be reminded that we have time limits. You only get a certain number of trips around the sun.

Especially if you live in an affluent society where your basic needs are met and you have no concerns about food, water, and shelter, time truly is the main limiting factor in your life. If nothing else, your ability to be productive is directly limited by the number of hours in a day. There’s only so much work that can be packed in. You only get to be the age you are for one year and then you must get older.

Living within your limits

All of these limitations are good, but our first instinct is to deny or minimize all of them. We believe we can push our bodies even further, that doing more work is just a matter of willpower, that we could get so much more done if it weren’t for the people around us, and that somehow our time supply is limitless.

You will never feel like a productive person until you accept the limits of productivity. We’ll talk more about what it means to accept those limits, but the most important starting place is to stop and see yourself for the social human that you are. 

Network Beyond Bias by Amy Waninger – Book Review

This book is for anyone who wants to stand up and take the first step towards being an ally, but lacks diversity in their own personal network.

Who Controls Your Day? Big Thoughts on the Importance of Time Management

The hardest part of achieving productivity is believing you are mortal. 

This is how the logic goes in our minds:

  • Every person who has ever lived on the planet has either died or will die one day
  • But, I haven’t died yet.
  • Therefore, I’m probably going to live forever. 

In a fractalish way, we apply the same mindset to our time at work. 

  • Every working day so far, I’ve reached a point where I need to stop and can no longer complete any more tasks.
  • But, I’ve got a lot of things to do today and a pot of coffee.
  • Therefore, I will get all of them done today.

As humans, we struggle with the concept of time. We seem to experience it as eternal, but we have all these reminders that it isn’t. 

So, the secret to being productive (and perhaps to life–oh?) is coming to terms with the importance of time management. You only have a few productive hours to the day. Like 5-6 hours. Superhuman Sujan Patel, who runs 9 companies, says that he’s probably only good for about five hours a day.

Nonsense! You say. I can work easily for 10-12 hours if I must. 

Shut up. You are always wrong about this. You get six.

Time is on your side–unless you waste it

At its core, productivity is the intersection between task management and time management. You have a lot of things to get done and you need to find the time to do each one. 

You have plenty of time to get your most important tasks done. But if you try to get everything done, you’ll run out of time each day and not have much to show for it. So, if you know the importance of time management, then what you need is a way to make sure that you spend the right amount of time on your most important work every day. Sounds easy, right?

Two people you definitely don’t want to tell you how to spend your time

Unfortunately, most of us don’t have full control over those six hours and it feels like they get mismanaged a lot. Here are the two groups of people that tend to be bad managers of your time.   

1. Other people 

Your boss, your colleagues, your reportees, Julian in marketing, the birthday planning committee…everyone wants to tell you how to spend your time. But everything goes to hell when you let other people dictate how you spend your time. 

Other people think you are twice the immortal they are and have limitless time to get all of their priorities done. If you spend your day accomplishing what other people think you should do, you’ll never get it done and you’ll just feel bad at the end of every day. 

2. You

As established, you are a bad judge of time. You get distracted. You don’t know how long things will take to get done. You are drawn to all the easy stuff and avoid doing the hard things that have a real impact. 

So who else can do it?

The most sacred productivity moment of the day

We must start with the fact that our brain goes through many different states throughout the day. At times we are impulsive and erratic–let’s call it your survival brain. Other times we are thoughtful and wise–or, your focused brain. The survival brain is your default brain state and is in charge most of your day. It takes a lot of work to shift from the survival brain to your focused brain state. 

The time that you spend prioritizing tasks should be the most insightful and clear-minded that you will be throughout the day, and when your focused brain should be hard at work. When faced with a list of tasks and specifically asked which ones are the most important, your focused brain is pretty damn good at picking the right ones. 

But when given the same list of tasks and addinging in time crunches, messages from other people, numerous distractions, and a noisy open office plan, your survival brain takes over and starts accomplishing whatever seems like the most immediate threat, or the easiest win. 

Giving yourself five minutes away from the madness to ask the question “What’s most important?” is often all you need to make the switch from one brain to another, but there’s one point of the day when your focused brain is most likely to show up. For most of us, this comes at the end of the day when we finally come to grips with our mortality and limits as humans. 

You think back on the day and ask, “Was it a good day or a bad day?” You imagine a friend or spouse asking how your day went. If you are productivity-minded like me, your answer lies in how many tasks you got done and if you got the big stuff done. If the answer is “It was a good day,” you can probably look back and see that you made progress on your big tasks and you moved forward in key areas. You did a good job matching your tasks to your time.  

If you think back and all you can see are small tasks, distractions, meetings that didn’t amount to much, and those same big tasks that you successfully avoided, then you know that you let one of those groups of morons run your day. 

It is at this moment that you will naturally make the best decision about how to manage your time tomorrow. You are more clear-minded than you’ll ever be. Your focused brain is in full evaluation mode. Your survival brain doesn’t do well reflecting on the past, so it has taken a back seat. When reflecting at the end of the day, you have the ability to start the next day fresh and either replicate your success, or fix the issues you had before. All the most effective time management strategies boil down to whether or not your focused brain is in charge when it comes time to decide what to do for the day. 

The Ivy Lee time management strategy

The story goes that back in 1918, PR consultant Ivy Lee was working with the Bethlehem Steel corporation. When asked for help in improving the productivity of the whole company, he gave this plan to the CEO:

  • Clearly define your vision and goals.
  • At the end of the day, write down the six most important tasks to achieve these goals.
  • Rank these six tasks according to their importance.
  • At the start of the next day, start with the first task and don’t move on until it is completed. Then move to the next task.
  • At the end of the day, reassess the priority of any new and uncompleted tasks.

There are two keys to making this method work for you. 

First, you do your prioritizing at the end of the day when you are most clear minded about what is important. 

Second, when you have to start on your most important task before you do anything else. Before you say hello, before you get your coffee, before you open your computer, before you check your email or messages. Before you do anything, you must give your full attention to the most important thing. Start doing it and don’t stop until you finish it. Then go get a bagel.

If you follow this single time management technique everyday for the rest of your working life, you will have an awesome career. Even if you do a Ivy-lite version and only get 1-2 of your most important tasks done, you’ll still wind up being awesome. 

End of the day hygiene

If you really want to take this method seriously, you need to block time for it at the end of your day. You really only need five minutes to do it, but it will make a huge difference. 

However, you will need to practice good workspace hygiene if it is going to work well. Many times at the end of the day, you’ve got 10-20 tabs open on your browser of things you abandoned throughout the day. Or papers laying at your desk. If you leave them all up (or out), then when you start the day tomorrow, you’ll immediately get sucked into finishing whatever was up.

Instead, close down all your tabs. Add any lingering tasks to your task management system so you don’t lose them. Then, pull up the tab or paper that has your most important thing to do tomorrow so that you reduce any kind of friction and your focused brain can start right away with nothing in its way. 

The importance of time management

If you are serious about getting productive, then you have to be serious about time management. There are lots of effective time management strategies and tips out there, and we’ll explore more of them in the future, but the most important one is who calls the shots. If you leave that to other people or to your survival brain, then you’ll always be disappointed with what you can get done. 

Take time management seriously, trust your better brain, and plan your day the night before.