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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Capture and store task reminders
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
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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 make you focus on the system, invite distraction, and don’t let you prioritize your most important tasks.
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.
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?