As my professional obligations have grown over the years, I have had to significantly upgrade my working habits to keep up.
I look back at how I used to organize myself ten years ago, and I can literally laugh at how badly I used to do things. Well, I guess that is the best sign of progress!
My struggle with being able to get things done actually started much earlier than when I started my real career in my early twenties. At school, I was famous with my teachers for my essential refusal to do almost all of my homework. I could not bring myself to do it. I would be at school the entire day, and the last thing I wanted to do at home was then spend more time studying. I felt that if I could not get a quality education while attending eight hours of school a day, then doing more work at home would be useless.
At that age, I could just about get away with this, but when I joined the “real world”, I didn’t have such a fallback, especially because I didn’t work for anyone else but had my own business. This means that a failure in getting things done would mean a failure in getting paid, as I had no fixed salary.
And so, unwillingly, I had to become more and more productive over time. Now I have significantly more work on my plate than I had ten years ago, but it actually feels significantly easier to execute on everything that I need to get done, even if I still do have my occasional struggles.
And so, I’d like to present a few rules that I abide by in my daily work. This is obviously more on-topic for anyone who works as a knowledge worker as this is my experience.
And so, let’s begin.
You Will Not Get Everything Done.
This subheading may seem strange in an essay that touches on the topic of productivity. After all, isn’t the whole point of productivity to get everything done? To reach inbox zero? To have that sense of peace when everything that is on our shoulders is done and we can relax?
This is actually a pretty terrible way to live. I know, I used to live like that. I used to think that I could finally relax once I have cleared my to-do list.
Turns out that being highly productive actually encourages more work to arrive. If you reply to emails faster and more reliably, you receive more emails. If you complete projects well, your boss or your customers will reward you with bigger and more challenging projects.
The key realization is that there will always be more work. It will never end or rest, no matter how hard your try and clear your backlog. This is quite a sobering realization, but also very liberating.
I am now at peace that I will never be able to complete everything that is on my to-do list. I will need to find ways to delay certain timelines, or simply find ways to not do the work at all.
Once we embrace the fact that we will not get everything done, this means that we need to be careful about the things that we do choose to do.
This means that we need to ensure that we focus on prioritization. What is the work that will have the biggest impact, or that will cause the biggest problem if it is not done urgently? Or what is blocking the largest number of people?
There is no “one way’ to prioritize work, but it is absolutely crucial that you do use your judgment and prioritize. Don’t just work blindly down a list, or do whatever appears more pressing because someone asked you to do so. Learn to push back, learn to say no, learn to delay or evade low-quality work that is not impactful.
Managing Distractions is Essential.
In another essay on the 80/20 rule that I will republish in the future, I wrote that focussed time can be up to 16 times more productive than non-focused time because even productivity follows the 80/20 rule!
The biggest challenge that I have seen with many people that I worked with, is that they never really learn to focus on doing one thing at a time for long stretches at a time without getting at all distracted.
Glancing at a phone notification may seem innocuous, but it is actually extremely damaging to your attention because you then need to go back and refocus on what you were doing, and this refocussing can actually take quite a lot of time. Much of the best work happens when you are really deep into a task, and if you are getting distracted every few minutes, you’ll never access that level of quality work that you could accomplish.
Your work will stay shallow, much like your attention.
The solution here is to control your environment. When I am writing, for instance, I like to turn off the internet on my laptop, put my phone completely on sleep mode so I do not receive any notifications, and then leave the phone in another room or in my bag if possible, so I have it completely out of sight. Then, I do not have the temptation to check it all, and I can just focus on the task at hand.
I use software to write that just presents me a full-screen blank page and only highlights the current sentence that I am reading, and I’ve been doing this for years, which helps me write well over 1M words per year without fail.
Unfortunately, in the last ten years, this problem has actually gotten much worse, because of the rise of social media and the attention economy. We are essentially being trained day in and day out to be distracted, because this is precisely what benefits the business model of some of the largest and most successful businesses on the planet such as Google, Facebook, and TikTok.
These companies actively want you to spend time on your phone and in their apps, consuming content and watching advertising. In fact, every minute that you spend on their application literally creates advertising inventory that they didn’t have before. So another way to see their business model is that your attention, your focus, the most important thing in your life, is then turned into a warehouse full of “products” that can be sold to advertisers.
This is actually a lot scarier than you think, but we will leave this discussion for a separate, and very interesting, essay.
The key point is that you are likely to have “learned distraction”, and so when it comes to working you will need to actively fight your habitual condition to ensure that you can focus properly.
I would strongly recommend reading the book “Deep Work” by Cal Newport on the topic of distraction-free working practices — it is likely one of the best investments you will ever make in your career.
The Biggest Productivity “Hack” is Delegation.
If you are at all good at your job, you will eventually be promoted into a position where you will be managing other people who were doing the same job that you were previously doing.
This is a good thing because it is an excellent opportunity to grow professionally and to mentor others. However, climbing the managerial ladder is tough, and it can be very stressful for first-time managers.
The issue that normally arises is that the manager is often a better individual contributor than any single person on their team, and so there is the temptation to jump in and micromanage to get the results that are required, and quickly.
This is actually a mistake. This is optimizing a short-term result (the work at hand) while forsaking the larger picture (the productivity of the team as a whole).
For many of the roles in my teams at my organizations, I could do a better job of the work than the people I have hired. I have more experience, I have been doing it longer, been part of more projects, and so on.
But, there is something that stops me from jumping in and doing the work: I cannot match the output of 20 people working at the same time!
This is the limit that is called being a human being and only having 24 hours in a day. While I could perhaps do a better job than one person on my team, I cannot do the job of everyone in my team, and so I have to work with that constraint.
Instead of jumping in and micromanaging, it is far better to work on developing the talent you have on your time, or spending time hiring new talent. The cycle you want to get into is to give work with clear instructions with regards to the type of output that you want to see, and then let the work get done as a draft. Have your team members come back to you when they feel confident about the quality of the work, and then review and give feedback. Repeat, until you have the quality you want.
Two things will happen.
Firstly, you’ll learn to give better initial instructions to avoid too many rounds of revisions, and you’ll learn to give really on-point feedback. Your team will like this.
Secondly, you will be enabling your team to develop a capacity for high-quality independent work, because over time you will notice you will need less and less feedback on deliverables, as your team learns to “read your mind” and understand what is required. This takes time, but it can feel really amazing when you’re working with a team that understands you as a manager. And eventually, they will do work that will be higher quality than what you could have achieved if you had jumped in and micro-managed.
And this is really the biggest productivity gain that you can have. Leveraging the work of other people can give you an almost unlimited productivity advantage. Eventually, your focus then turns from managing directly, to managing managers, and then teams of managers. This is not magic, this is a proven concept. There are thousands of organizations that have tens of thousands of people all working together, and this type of collaboration really does work.
Forget About Perfect.
It is said that the enemy of done is perfect. This is related to my first point about the fact that we will never actually manage to get everything done, and so we will often be working with time constraints. This means that the ideal scenario of a specific task needs to be compromised to ensure it can be completed on time.
You will never reach perfection, and there will always be additional improvements to anything that you do, but you need to understand where is the sweet spot where an additional hour of work does not yield as much benefit as stopping, considering the task as done, and moving on to something else.
This is not always obvious, but it is a skill that can be developed. The approach here is to do something that you feel is substandard based on your evaluation, and see if you can get away with it. I am not talking about having massive oversights, but if you normally only send things out when you feel they are 98% perfect, well why not try sending something out that is 92% done?
Perhaps this might save you 20% of the time of the task, and you are only losing 6% of the quality, which means it might be a pretty good trade.
Of course, this is all going to be subjective. There is no objective “92%” of most normal tasks that we do as knowledge workers, but I hope that this still illustrates the point clearly.
Not focussing on getting things absolutely perfect is also a great way to fight the one big enemy of productivity: Procrastination.
The issue with wanting everything to be perfect is that then you feel that you need to have everything lined up properly before you can work on the specific task. You might delay because the environment is not perfect, or you don’t feel that you are bringing your A-game to the table, and so on.
If you give up on being perfect, well then almost any time is okay to start working on something, because you don’t need a perfect environment or mindset to start working on something that you already know is not going to end up being perfect!
This mindset change takes a lot of pressure off beginning new things and can help to overcome procrastination.
In fact, this is exactly what I am doing right now, writing this essay. I gave myself an hour to write an initial draft, and I only had the title and no notes or previous specific thinking on this, and I have just started writing. Sure, some of the sentences are a bit convoluted, but this is what editing is for.
Because I am not concerned about having the perfect essay, this allows me to just write and write and write, and then concern myself with the quality a little later. Obviously, this does presuppose some level of confidence in one’s skillset, and one could argue that this is even a touch arrogant, but if it works — it works!
Because of the fact that you will never be able to complete everything that you need to complete, you will sometimes need to deal with the consequences of this.
This means being able to say no in a firm but fair way, without burning bridges or getting known as being not dependable or work-shy.
This is where admitting that you are only human to yourself comes into play. You need to accept the fact that you can fail, and then be comfortable enough to show your vulnerability to others with open, frank discussions about what you can and cannot do in a given time frame.
As long as you are working at what can be commonly described as a good speed and at a high level of quality, nobody can fault you for not being able to work that you could never have been able to do in a given time frame. It would have literally been impossible to complete the tasks at hand given all the other priorities and the time available.
That said, there is a mistake that can be made here, and this is something that I have experienced when working with junior team members. They hope that they will be able to pull through and manage to complete all their work at the last minute, so they do not raise any issues to their manager until the very last moment. This can create a lot of headaches for everyone involved. The mature and sensible thing to do would be to raise the risk that something cannot be completed nice and early, and then a plan can be put into place to mitigate the risk.
Track your time.
This is not something that I necessarily recommend that you do forever, but it can be very useful to track precisely how you spend your work time each and every day, and you may be surprised about how little you actually “work”.
When I did this, I realized that some of the very heavy weeks where I thought I was working 60 to 70 hours, I was actually only working around 45 hours. The rest was just fluff, filler, useless time spent checking my email 15 times per day.
The adjacent rule to tracking your time is to then make notes about how you may be wasting time when you are supposed to be working, and then ensure that you stop wasting time. If you are working, just work. This is linked to one of the previous rules about controlling distractions. Don’t half work! Either be working, or doing something else.
If you work in a professional service firm where you need to track your time to bill clients, then you’ll start to be acutely aware of the value of your time and how you spend it. I do work on some client projects where I bill my time by the hour, and this actually helps me spend the correct amount of time that I should on a client. There might be a task that I don’t really want to do, and that I would normally put off, but if I know that I am billing a very fruitful amount per hour, where I can pay my entire rent in just a day and a half of work, then I do actually get down and focus because the incentive structure is there.
I hope these initial thoughts on productivity are useful, and there is a lot more that could be said on this topic. I encourage you to view the above as principles that you can test in your own work-life and see how they work for you. You’ll likely need to make some tweaks and experiments along the way to ensure that things work based on your temperament, but I sincerely hope that they do help in making you more productive, because being highly productive is a great way to ensure that you end up working on meaningful work, and have a meaningful life.