Updated: Jul 16, 2020
In the fast-paced, constantly changing world, people today are always striving to be more productive. Cultivating the habits of highly productive people can help you maximise your productivity and achieve great things in life including more fulfilment, career success and overall joy.
But, what makes someone productive? What are the habits of productive people? Learning to say "no" more, hiring a coach and visualising success are three key habits that can help you become more productive in the short and long-term.
In this article we examine the habits of highly productive people. The ones who advance in their careers and have meaningful relationships, all while having boundless energy, focus and an abundance of joy. Below is a list of tips and tricks that will help you become more impactful and find greater fulfilment.
1. Get clear on your top goals and prioritise.
Achieving big things whether it’s writing a book, starting a business, moving countries or progressing in your career, takes hard work, commitment and resilience. If you aren’t clear on why you want to achieve the goal in the first place, when you encounter challenges, you will be more likely to quit or allow yourself to be distracted or talked out of continuing. This step is key because there’s no point in working hard towards the wrong goals. This goes for your bigger life goals, but also for the smaller ones that will be required to move you forward to achieve your bigger goals. Essentially, be mindful and work towards meaningful goals.
Whether it’s through journaling, spending time in nature or sitting in stillness, reflection is an important habit of highly productive people. Billionaire entrepreneur Sara Blakely is a life-long journaler. In one interview, she shared that she had more than 20 notebooks where she logged bad things that happened to her and the gifts that had unfolded as a result. Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey, is a serial wanderer and LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner schedules two hours of thinking time each day. It’s important to connect with your intuition.
3. Focus on the most important thing first.
This is key. Mark Twain said, "Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day." If you’re like me, you start the day with big hopes of achieving a lot, but as the day goes, your focus wanes, your will power decreases and other things come up. Eventually, with less willpower you are less able to say no and prioritise accordingly. Ensure you do the first thing when your energy and focus are at their highest. In Cal Newport’s study hacks blog he talks about the benefits of having a monk morning, essentially between when you wake up and noon: no meetings, no calls, no texts, no email, no Slack, no Internet. Learn more here.
4. Cultivate deep work and critical thinking.
While we all have some things in our day that are easy and routine, there are other things that are difficult and we need to devote time and focused effort to doing them if we want to produce results. Here are some steps you can put in place to set yourself up for success:
Do hard work in the morning.
Plan for hard work and give yourself the time you need for it so you don’t feel rushed. You want to give yourself space to get focused and engaged in what you’re doing. You may be reluctant at first so count with that.
Avoid social media and get more comfortable doing nothing. Many of us think we need to be productive at all times and aren’t used to doing nothing. Just sitting and listening to music for the sake of enjoyment. Or sitting and listening to your own thoughts. The more comfortable you become with doing nothing, the easier it will become to do deep and focused work. Here’s a great Ted Talk on getting your brain to focus.
Be hard to contact. In some cases you need to be reachable, but far too many of us allow ourselves to be reached at all times which interrupts our ability to focus for long periods of time. Learn to be proactive and not reactive. You don’t need to be available to everyone at all times.
5. Learn to say "no" and manage your energy.
Billionaire investor, Warren Buffett, famously said, "The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything." This can be tricky to get right. Sometimes, saying yes can be great for your career, joy, fulfilment or personal development—it can open you up to new challenges and learning opportunities, expand your network, allow you to develop self-awareness and so much more. But for most, always saying yes will almost certainly lead to exhaustion, stress, being time-poor, and lacking motivation. Productive people understand the value of their time and view it as a precious resource. They appreciate that they must choose, with intention, what they say yes to and what they say no to. They simplify where possible, prioritise, and focus their attention on what matters most. If you struggle with this, the next time something comes up that you feel conflicted about, ask yourself: 'will going to this bring me closer or further from my goals?' or 'will this decision support the person I'm trying to become?.' Say yes to things that make you feel alive and excited about and no to more things that make you feel drained. While there is a strong case for saying "no" to more, this doesn’t give you permission to be rude or dismissive. Moreover, it's also worth remembering that it's important to be there for the people in your life that you care about. Not only will it bring you greater life satisfaction, but it's good for your health and the right thing to do.
6. Get rid of distractions.
Understand your work habits. Earlier, I mentioned that you should do your hard work in the morning, which is the best time for most people, but everyone is different. Know yourself and do what works best for you. If you need a clean table free of papers to be productive, make sure to clean your table. If you tend to lack focus when you listen to music, stop listening to music when you’re doing deep work. If you can get distracted with social media, make promises to yourself to stay off it for a certain amount of time.
7. Be genuinely interested in other people and always look for “win win” outcomes. We do not live in a vacuum and relationships are key to our overall happiness, success and fulfilment. Never forget to treat other people with respect, be willing to admit to your own mistakes, apologise when appropriate, and look for “win win” outcomes.
8. Break tasks down and take small steps.
Some tasks we have to do, take little effort; however, many take lots of effort and can seem daunting. It is important to break them down so you don’t risk being overwhelmed and not even starting! For example, if your goal is to start a blog, instead of scheduling ‘start a blog’ in your calendar, you can schedule ‘research 3 blog platforms’ or ‘email three friends who’ve started blogs’ to hear about their experiences. Other tasks would be ‘brainstorm names for blog,’ ‘brainstorm blog topics’ and ‘select blog platform and plan.’ The idea is to break the tasks down into manageable chunks. This is a hard step for many of us but really crucial. Big tasks can be overwhelming, but they are essentially a series of many small steps.
9. Take breaks throughout the day.
Our brains are simply not designed to focus for long stretches of time. Taking a break at work is good for your productivity. According to the New York Times, a new and growing body of multidisciplinary research shows that strategic renewal — including daytime workouts, short afternoon naps, longer sleep hours, more time away from the office and longer, more frequent vacations — can boost productivity, job performance and overall health. Remarkably, on average, for an eight hour work day, people are productive for only around 3 hours. The good news is: According to behavioural scientist Nir Eyal, the right kind of breaks can increase productivity and counter any negative effects of working too long. Good breaks reduce mental fatigue, boost brain function, and help us stay focused. So, if you want to get more done, you need to make sure you take effective breaks during your workday. Taking regular breaks will also:
help you make better decisions (by thinking more clearly)
spark creative ideas and new solutions
help you stay focused over long periods of time d) retain information in memory (important for studying or rehearsing a speech etc.)
help you re-focus on your big-picture goals.
10. Make fewer decisions (especially about things that aren’t important) and have processes to make them.
By bedtime, the average person has made 35,000 decisions. Every decision requires time and energy, depletes our willpower and takes away our energy from the decisions that matter. Look for ways to streamline your decisions. Plan your meals and outfits for the next day the night before. Automate bill payments when possible. Read more about decision making here and here.
11. Visualise your success.
As many athletes and successful people can attest to, we must be able to see the image in our mind before we can hope to manifest it. Jim Carrey is a well known example of this. Hard to believe now, but the famous actor and comedian was once a struggling actor. On "The Oprah Winfrey Show" back in 1997, he spoke about his early days trying to make it as an actor. He was broke and had no obvious prospects. While he could have easily been discouraged at that point, he took a blank check and wrote out $10 million dollars to himself for acting services rendered and dated it for Thanksgiving 1995. He carried the check in his wallet at all times and looked at it every day, visualising receiving $10 million dollars. Five years after he wrote the check to himself and right before Thanksgiving 1995, he found out that he would make $10 million dollars from the movie "Dumb and Dumber." This is such an inspiring story and such a great example of the power of visualising your dreams. The power of dreaming and dreaming big. The power of relentlessly believing in yourself and working toward your vision every day, even when it looks like the odds are stacked against you.
12. Learn from successes and failures and don't get deterred by failure.
Despite most people’s common tendency to try and avoid it, failure is a normal part of life. This is especially true for anyone that is trying to accomplish something meaningful. In each situation, take the time to reflect on what went well, what didn't and what learnings can be applied to situations going forward. As Dale Carnegie put it, "Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy."
13. Hire a coach.
Eric Schmidt, said the best advice he ever got was to hire a coach. If you don't have a coach, you are limiting your career prospects and overall chances of success. Coaches help you identify your blind spots and focus on what’s important, create strategies to achieve goals, keep you accountable and motivated. It's not surprising that successful people across all fields work with coaches. From Eric Schmidt, to Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, to Hugh Jackman, to Oprah Winfrey to any and every athlete. If you want to go far in life, hire a coach.
14. Stay consistent and work even when you’re not inspired or motivated.
If you’re not motivated, starting can be hard, but if you start in the smallest possible way, you’ll be more likely to succeed. If you want to clean your house, tell yourself you have to spend 10 minutes cleaning one room. Usually once you’re started, you’ll be happy to work longer, but if you’re not that’s ok. The point is, just do something however small it may be.
15. Don’t multitask.
The research is clear. Multitasking is not good for your productivity or stress levels. Essentially you’re switching your focus from one task to another quickly and it’s inefficient and time consuming. Block out time to work on particular tasks.
Get enough sleep, exercise, eat well, get outside in nature. Recharging is such a key component of living a productive and successful life. You can’t operate at your best if you don’t take the time to unwind and give yourself space to find stillness.
17. Sharpen the axe.
Billionaires, Warren Buffet and Marc Cuban, spend several hours per day reading and growing up, Elon Musk, read two books per day! This wasn’t wasted time for any of them. They were all learning and getting stronger at their trade and when situations came up, they were able to make better decisions, quicker and with greater ease. Embrace continuous learning and read a lot.
18. Honour your feelings and set appropriate boundaries.
Often people who are career focused and driven, are not used to acknowledging and honouring their feelings. It takes time to get clarity on how you feel about situations and many times we judge the feelings. We feel we shouldn’t or it won’t serve us to feel hurt or upset about a particular meeting or situation, but it is important to acknowledge how you feel and respect it, so you can process it, honour yourself and learn to set boundaries that service you. That is not to say that every time you’re upset you need to address it with your boss or colleague, it’s more about getting into the habit of recognising what you’re feeling and accepting it without judgement. Then you can decide what the appropriate next step is and set healthy boundaries. If you find yourself constantly upset or feeling like you’re being inauthentic, it may be a sign that the situation is not right for you. We often ignore what our gut or intuition tells us, for fear of rocking the boat or what the reality tells us, which is normal, but the longer we avoid what our gut is telling us and are unwilling to accept things, the longer we stay stuck.