Productivity

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!

All Productivity Systems Boil Down to These 4 Principles


When it comes to productivity systems, everyone has one that:

  • Used to work for them
  • Has been working for the last 24 hours
  • Sounds like it would work
  • Never works

However, with new productivity books coming out all the time, how are you supposed to keep track of all of them? Do you need to use a branded journal? Do you need a special app? Do you need to buy a training program to help your team get more done?

Leaders are especially notorious for finding what they think is the best productivity system in the world, sending it to everyone on the team, and then wondering why not everyone is as excited as you are. 

We go through phases. Is everyone practicing GTD? What’s your frog today? How could we forget our Pomodoro timers!

The good news is that most productivity gurus are all saying the same thing, so you don’t need to do deep research on every trend that comes up. Instead of forcing new productivity systems on your team, start with the basics. 


The four pillars of productivity

All the productivity systems out there fit into one of these principles:

  • Task management – a way to collect and organize all the stuff you have to do
  • Prioritization – a way to decide what you do first
  • Time management – a way to structure your day so that you get the most important things done
  • Focus – a way to reduce distractions and accomplish your goals 

That’s it. Everything falls under one of these. If you and your team have a solid plan for how to do each of the pillars, you will be well on your way to being extremely productive. 

Now, here are some of the most popular productivity systems out there and see how they fall into the productivity principles. 


Pillar 1: Task management

The heart of task management is David Allen’s adage: your mind is for having ideas, not holding them. There are a limited number of things you can hold in your brain at one time, so you need a way to organize ideas and tasks as they spill over. 

When you record your tasks somewhere else, you can rest easy knowing that you aren’t forgetting to do something. Your anxiety can be better directed towards the number of things you have to get done, rather than on remembering what to do :-). 

Here are some common productivity systems that fall in this category:

Getting things done

GTD or Getting Things Done is a framework introduced by David Allen in his book of the same name. It starts with brainstorming and capturing ideas in a notepad or an online tool. Every time an idea pops into your head, you make a note of it. 

With GTD, you break down big tasks into the smallest possible next step so that your tasks are very actionable. GTD also gives you an algorithm to process your tasks and organize them into things that need to be done sooner or later. You provide context for every task so that you don’t have to start from zero when it’s time to work on it. 

Kanban

Kanban boards were originally used as a tool for project management, but it turns out they are pretty good for task management as well. Instead of the GTD algorithm, you write your tasks on cards and put them in one of three columns: to-do, doing, and done. 

(Some people like to have additional columns, such as “nearly thinking about doing” and “haven’t thought about doing in ages”.) 

This visual layout lets you see items as they move across the board. 

Kanban is cool because you can go full analog with pen-and-paper sticky notes up on a physical board and still feel cool. While highly visual, it can’t be transported easily. Instead, digital tools like Trello and Kissflow give you a digital board that functions the same way, but is also accessible anywhere. 

Kanban boards are also nice when it comes to shared tasks among a team. 


Pillar 2: Prioritizing

Prioritization is a deceptively simple concept. Anyone can do it, but few do. 

We get caught up in the moment and everything seems to be the most important thing in the world, or we are eager to get the easy stuff off our plate first. We act like firefighters that put out (and sometimes light) fires all the time.

If you are bad a prioritizing, you might be incredibly efficient at things that don’t matter that much. Here are the productivity systems that center on prioritization. 

Eisenhower matrix

You’ve seen this one before. Urgency vs. importance. True productivity is focusing on the tasks that are both. The only problem with this matrix is that both axes are subjective, and in the right frame of mind, you can be convinced that anything is both important and urgent. The trick is to take your time and actually rank the importance and urgency of tasks rather than assigning it an arbitrary value. 

The Eisenhower Decision Matrix

Eat that frog

Mark Twain once famously didn’t say, “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.”

This productivity principle was popularized by Brian Tracy in his time management book. You pick the most difficult, yet most important task (the frog), first. It’s the item on your to-do list that you have no motivation to do. You move on to other tasks only when you’re done with the frog.

Doing the most challenging task first thing means that no matter how the rest of the day goes, it starts off with success. 

Similar to Eat that frog is the MIT system (most important task). Some productivity systems advocate for picking three MITs instead of just one. 

Pareto principle

Pareto principle, also known as the 80/20 rule, states that 80 percent of the effects comes from 20 percent of the causes.

So, when it comes to prioritizing, you should forget the 80 percent of stuff and focus only on the 20 percent that is actually going to produce results. 


Pillar 3: Time management

Now that you know what you are going to be working on, you need to make the time to do it. Most people feel like their days get away from them, but if you are at the office for eight hours, that’s actually quite a lot of time to get things done. If you plan out you day well, you have all the time you need to be productive. 

Pomodoro technique

The pomodoro principle requires you to break your workday into 25-minute blocks of time followed by a 5-minute break. After about four of these ‘pomodoros’, you take a longer break. 

We tend to believe that we have an endless supply of time. The pomodoro technique breaks this notion by instilling a sense of urgency. This is based on Parkinson’s law, which states that we’ll complete a task in the time that we’ve allotted for it. By creating a faux-urgency that you have only 25 minutes left to complete a task, you tend to work faster and more focused.

The forced break reminds you to take a breather once in a while and prevents mental fatigue. 

Time-boxing

The weakness of the pomodoro system is that it treats every task as the same, whether it is a quick email or an hour-long sales call. The 25-minute period works great for me, because most of my day revolves around writing. I can write for that time, take a quick break, and return to my task until it’s done. But, this may not be the case for every line of work. Imagine being in the middle of a sales call and telling the client that you’ll be back in five because your timer goes off. Yikes!

The time-boxing technique overcomes this drawback by being flexible and giving you control over how much time to allocate for every task. You estimate how much time you want to spend doing a task, work within this time box, and take a break when the set time runs out. Here’s a list of time management apps that can help.

Biological prime time

Detailed by Sam Carpenter in Work the System, this time management system tries to take advantage of natural ebbs and flows in your momentum, energy, and focus throughout the day. You chart out when you are typically most focused and do your most intense activities there. When you naturally slump down, you can do tasks that don’t require as much thought.


Pillar 4: Focus

There’s not much worse that getting everything set perfectly, knowing you have your most important task in front of you, having significant time blocked out to do it, and then checking Facebook just before you start. 

You can do all the planning and prioritizing in the world but if you are easily distracted and switch between tasks, then you’re not managing your time effectively. Dr. Gloria Mark says that it can take up to 23 minutes to get back to the original task after being distracted or interrupted. So, it’s crucial to focus on the task at hand, finish them, and move on to the next. 

Here are a few productivity systems dedicated to helping you focus.

To-don’t list

There are plenty of things you do in the middle of work that you know you shouldn’t be doing. These are the ones that affect your productivity, your super-villains. Like twitter scrolling. One minute you’re seeing what’s trending on twitter and then an hour later, you end up taking a Buzzfeed quiz to see what kind of bread you are.

Make a list of all the activities and habits you know you shouldn’t be doing and stick to it. It’s as simple as that. 

The real challenge is sticking to it and you need an insane amount of willpower to work against your impulses. But, by listing all your productivity-hampering habits, you tell your brain that you’ll no longer focus on them. 

  • Don’t check social media from 10am to 5pm
  • Don’t check emails more than two times a day
  • Don’t set up meetings from 9am to 12pm
  • Don’t speak to Dave about the latest movies on Netflix
  • Don’t look at funny cat videos during work

Free to focus

This one comes from Michael Hyatt. It has three steps: Stop, cut, and act. With each one, you examine your habits and behaviors and find ways to avoid more distractions in your life. 

There are also many individual apps that promise to help you focus better and reduce the digital distractions that make up a large part of our lives. 


Back to work

Productivity is a big thing for leaders, but there are just too many systems out there. If you jump from one to another, you’ll never actually get anything done. 

When you look at the four productivity pillars, you’ll be naturally better at some and struggle with others. Where you find yourself lacking, you can try to find some good systems specifically designed around those principles. 

But also remember that your teams will take on their own productivity personality as well. You may be great at prioritizing, but horrible at distracting each other. 

As a leader, it’s your job to find the areas where your team needs support, and explore systems that can help your productivity skyrocket. 

PS: Check out our podcast episode with Sujan Patel to know how he runs nine companies but still has time for skydiving.

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

Toggl

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

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. 

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. 

You Can’t Be Productive Without a Task Management System

A key step to being productive is to establish your task management system. 

One of your limitations as a human is the number of things you can keep in your head at any time. The human brain is capable of remembering lots of things, but we can only keep so many things front and center. 

Thoughts about tasks come in and out of our head very lucidly. You get to work first thing in the morning and try to focus on your weekly report. But before that, you have to close down some tabs you have up that remind you that you really need to finish off the slides for a customer demo. 

You clean up the slides and start to move back to the report, when a nagging feeling hits you that you are forgetting something. You check your calendar. Shit, is that webinar scheduled for today? You quickly sketch out an outline, but then remember that Andrea had said something insightful in one of your chat groups that you wanted to include. You open up that application, and then all hell breaks loose and that report has no chance of getting done. 

This is your brain

This is how our brains are built. We can focus on what we are doing right in the moment until some emergency presents itself and then we have to shift all of our attention. Tasks randomly jump to the top of our consciousness like one of those old school lottery ball machines.

https://mcanv.com/Obs%20Archive/images/lottery_machine.jpg

This might have been a good system for the old hunter-gatherer trying to stay alive, but it’s pretty horrible for the modern office worker who has dozens of things to remember and prioritize. 

What is a task management system?

A task management system externalizes all of these random thoughts and relieves your brain from having to constantly store and sort them. Instead of being constantly distracted by emergencies and thoughts that pop into your head, you can quickly capture and later sort through them later. 

The two essential functions of a task management system

At its core, a task management system must do two things.

  1. Capture and store task reminders
  2. Prioritize tasks

Good productivity recognizes that your best ideas may come to you when you are already being productive at something else. You don’t want to ignore that idea, but you don’t want to indulge it either. You need a tool that can nearly instantly let you take those distractions, and put them in a system where you can organize them later. It shouldn’t take more than a few seconds. 

Ideas come randomly in your head, or from action items at a meeting, or when you are working on something else, or when you are sifting through your communication. 

Your task management system is the place where all of these ideas sit in one place. But if it is just a dumping ground of ideas, it’s not enough. You also need to be able to quickly look at all your tasks and arrange them based on their relative importance and urgency so that you get the most important things done first.

Qualities of the best task management systems

1. Universal

You don’t want one list in your email, a bunch of sticky notes on your desk, and then a separate app on your phone to handle your tasks. You need one master system that holds everything.

2. Mobile

Let’s face it–some of your best ideas come when you are on the toilet. Or at the park. Or riding in the car. That said, your task management system shouldn’t be exclusively mobile. When it’s actually time to work, you probably don’t want to pull out your phone and risk being distracted. 

3. Connected

When sorting through your email, it’s nice to be able to just click a button and have it immediately go to your task management system. Or when you schedule a meeting, for you to have a quick option to assign a task to prepare for it. Or when you are having a discussion online to quickly pull a task out of it. At this point, there are very few systems out there that have this deep of an integration will all your tools, but just having the ability to capture the URL of where that work needs to happen is enough. 

Benefits of using a task management system

You know where to go when it’s time to work

When it’s time to sit down and work, you don’t load up your email or messaging app. You look at your task management system and start hitting the big stuff. Work is what happens when you are moving through all of your tasks, not just sitting in your chair.

For me, a great task management system is a centering tool. I can relax knowing that all of my ideas and reminders are safe in one place. When it’s time to work, I don’t have to go through the anxiety of wondering what I should be doing. I know what I need to do and I can sit down and do it. This is especially useful when I hit that afternoon slump and am easily distracted and need something to pull me back in. 

Your task management system is the boss

A good portion of what you probably do at work is controlled by other people through meetings, notifications, emails, and more. Another large portion is all of the internal distractions you face. Even if you are focused on a task, your brain is still on high alert mode and aware of other things you could be doing. Like going to finish off that cheesecake in the break room. 

So, who is in charge of what you do? Other people? Or your lizard brain?

Instead, when you let a task management system be your boss, i.e. determine what you work on, you get to take advantage of trusting that your higher brain knew what it was doing when it prioritized your tasks.

You make a barrier between communication and getting shit done

Many of us confuse communication with accomplishing tasks. When you are talking with others about work, you are rarely getting tasks done. Communication and dialog is a vital part of work, but it isn’t everything. If most of your day is spent switching between your email and messaging applications, you aren’t likely getting much done.

When you do your communication, it’s like going out to check your mailbox. It’s an important part of the day. But you don’t spend your whole day sitting at the mailbox and continuously checking to see if anything new has come. You visit only a few times, check what’s there, and sort it appropriately. Then you get back to work. 

You are already using a task management system

You don’t have to create one or go out and spend a lot of money on technology. You mostly need to decide if the system you are using is a good or bad one and if you can improve it. 

Good systems I’ve tried

A piece of paper 

There have been seasons when I just take a big piece of paper and write out everything that is top of mind at the start of the day. I might star the things that are top priority and then just work on mowing down the list. 

This is my default system when I’m stressed or when I really need to focus, such as right before I start packing for a big international trip. I’ve also used it around the office by just writing down 3-4 of my most important tasks and keeping that by me all day. It’s still my preferred method on weekends when I have a wide variety of tasks to choose from. 

The down side of a single piece of paper is that you can lose it, it’s hard to change priorities, and can’t last for more than a few days until you need to make a new one (not always a bad thing to clear it all out and start fresh). 

Flags 

To help with prioritizing things, you can use sticky notes or flags to keep track of tasks. This solves the prioritization issue because it creates a kanban feel where you can move things around. 

You get some bulletin board and then write your tasks on the flags and arrange them on the board in order of priority. The flags are really easy to move around (taking drag and drop to a whole new level), and it feels damn good to see a pile of flags sitting there of things you’ve accomplished for the day. 

The downside of flags is that they don’t link to your digital tools like email, and you can’t take them with you easily if you are working in a different location for the day. 

Spreadsheet

You make a simple spreadsheet with the name of the task, a column for any links to quickly access the work, and a column to set the priority. If you auto-sort the sheet based on the priority column, you’ve got a nice system that can capture, prioritize, and integrate pretty well. 

The downside of spreadsheets is that, well, it’s a spreadsheet, and is destined to make you depressed at some point in your life. The user experience is lacking a lot, and it can be hard to keep a record of everything you’ve done if you are deleting rows. 

Dedicated software

Everyone’s got some tool they’ve tried at some point. This is where you realize that it is a very personal thing what tool you want to use. I tried to use Evernote at least three separate times. I’m sure people aren’t lying when they say how awesome it is, but I just don’t get it. I used Remember the Milk for a long time with some success. And I’ve tried Todoist and Wunderlist. They are all fine, but usually are just a bit more complex than I want. 

I used Google Tasks for a long time and its integration with Gmail was great. But just when they cleaned up the UI, they also forced you to only be able to see the tasks on your desktop when you had your email up, which is horrible for distractions. 

Bad Systems

Bad systems make you focus on the system, invite distraction, and don’t let you prioritize your most important tasks.

Email

Ever sent yourself an email as a reminder to do something? Stop that. Email is built for distractions and should only be used as a tool for communicating with people outside your company. Do not keep emails in your inbox to remind you to do them later. You are not working when you are going through your email. You are only sorting your communication. 

Apps that you fiddle with all the time

It will take 2-3 days to create a new task management system and configure it to your tastes, but after that, you should pretty much never work on it again. If you find yourself constantly messing with it, it’s not a good system for you. Spending time on your task management system itself is not being productive. Don’t be deceived. 

Now, get back to work

Having a good task management system is essential to being productive. There are lots of good systems out there, but most of us are stuck using sloppy ones. Be intentional and create your own system that works for you. 

Feeling distracted? Here are 30 ideas to build your focus.

How many times have you sat down at the start of your day, excited to get a bunch of tasks done, only to decide to quickly check your email and then spiral into a day that results in nothing more than finally learning who actually framed Roger Rabbit?