Let’s define productivity. Productivity is a measure of efficiency of a person completing a task. We often assume that productivity means getting more things done each day. Wrong. Productivity is getting important things done consistently. And no matter what you are working on, there are only a few things that are truly important.
Being productive is about maintaining a steady, average speed on a few things, not maximum speed on everything.
We are, of course, capable of doing two things at the same time. It is possible, for example, to watch TV while cooking dinner or to answer an email while talking on the phone.
This wouldn’t be a big deal if the human brain could transition seamlessly from one job to the next, but it can’t. Multitasking forces you to pay a mental price each time you interrupt one task and jump to another. In psychology terms, this mental price is called the switching cost.
Switching cost is the disruption in performance that we experience when we switch our attention from one task to another. A
2003 study published in the International Journal of Information Management found that the typical person checks email once every five minutes and that, on average, it takes 64 seconds to resume the previous task after checking your email.
In other words, because of email alone we typically waste one out of every six minutes.
The myth of multitasking is that it will make you more effective. In reality, remarkable focus is what makes the difference. (Image inspired by Jessica Hagy.)
Mastery requires focus and consistency, which means you need to know how to focus on one task at a time (
read the full guide to focus here), and say no to being busy. Let’s talk more about that now. Saying No to Being Busy
In addition to wearing our ability to multitask as a badge, we’ve also fallen into a trap of busyness and overwork. In many ways, we have mistaken all this activity to be something meaningful. The underlying thought seems to be,
“Look how busy I am? If I’m doing all this work, I must be doing something important.” And, by extension, “I must be important because I’m so busy.”
While I firmly believe everyone has worth and value, I think we’re kidding ourselves if we believe being busy is what drives meaning in our lives.
In my experience, meaning is derived from contributing something of value to your corner of the universe. And the more I study people who are able to do that, people who are masters of their craft, the more I notice that they have one thing in common…
The people who do the most valuable work have a remarkable willingness to say no to distractions and focus on their one thing.
I think we need to say no to being busy and say yes to being committed to our craft. That is the core of smart time management and productivity and is what the rest of this guide will focus on.
Eliminate Time Wasting Activities by Using the “Eisenhower Box”
Dwight Eisenhower lived one of the most productive lives you can imagine. Eisenhower was the 34th President of the United States, serving two terms from 1953 to 1961. Before becoming president, Eisenhower was a five-star general in the United States Army, served as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, and was responsible for planning and executing invasions of North Africa, France, and Germany. At other points along the way, he served as President of Columbia University, became the first Supreme Commander of NATO, and somehow found time to pursue hobbies like golfing and oil painting.
Eisenhower had an incredible ability to sustain his productivity not just for weeks or months, but for decades. And for that reason, it is no surprise that his methods for time management, task management, and productivity have been studied by many people.
His most famous productivity strategy is known as the Eisenhower Box and it’s a simple decision-making tool that you can use right now. Let’s talk about how to be more productive and how Eisenhower’s strategy works.
The Eisenhower Box: How to be More Productive
Eisenhower’s strategy for taking action and organizing your tasks is simple. Using the decision matrix below, you will separate your actions based on four possibilities.
Urgent and important (tasks you will do immediately).
Important, but not urgent (tasks you will schedule to do later).
Urgent, but not important (tasks you will delegate to someone else).
Neither urgent nor important (tasks that you will eliminate).
The great thing about this matrix is that it can be used for broad productivity plans (“How should I spend my time each week?”) and for smaller, daily plans (“What should I do today?”).
Here is an example of what my Eisenhower Box looks like for today.
Urgent tasks are things that you feel like you need to react to: emails, phone calls, texts, news stories. Meanwhile, in the words of Brett McKay, “Important tasks are things that contribute to our long-term mission, values, and goals.”
Separating these differences is simple enough to do once, but doing so continually can be tough. The reason I like the Eisenhower Method is that it provides a clear framework for making the decisions over and over again. And like anything in life, consistency is the hard part.
The fastest way to get something done — whether it is having a computer read a line of code or crossing a task off your to-do list — is to eliminate that task entirely. There is no faster way to do something than not doing it at all. That’s not a reason to be lazy, but rather a suggestion to force yourself to make hard decisions and delete any task that does not lead you toward your mission, your values, and your goals.
Too often, we use productivity, time management, and optimization as an excuse to avoid the really difficult question: “Do I actually need to be doing this?” It is much easier to remain busy and tell yourself that you just need to be a little more efficient or to “work a little later tonight” than to endure the pain of eliminating a task that you are comfortable with doing, but that isn’t the highest and best use of your time.
As Tim Ferriss says, “Being busy is a form of laziness — lazy thinking and indiscriminate action.”
I find that the Eisenhower Method is particularly useful because it pushes me to question whether an action is really necessary, which means I’m more likely to move tasks to the “Delete” quadrant rather than mindlessly repeating them.
To be honest, if you simply eliminated all of the things you waste time on each day then you probably wouldn’t need any tips on how to be more productive at the things that matter.
Here’s one of my favorite methods for focusing your attention on what matters and eliminating what doesn’t…
How to Maximize Your Focus and Master Your Priorities
This method comes from the famous investor Warren Buffett and uses a simple 3-step productivity strategy to help you determine your priorities and actions. You may find this method useful for making decisions and getting yourself to commit to doing one thing right away. Here’s how it works…
One day, Buffett asked his personal pilot to go through the 3-step exercise.
STEP 1: Buffett started by asking the pilot, named Mike Flint, to write down his top 25 career goals. So, Flint took some time and wrote them down. (Note: You could also complete this exercise with goals for a shorter timeline. For example, write down the top 25 things you want to accomplish this week.)
STEP 2: Then, Buffett asked Flint to review his list and circle his top 5 goals. Again, Flint took some time, made his way through the list, and eventually decided on his 5 most important goals.
STEP 3: At this point, Flint had two lists. The 5 items he had circled were List A, and the 20 items he had not circled were List B.
Flint confirmed that he would start working on his top 5 goals right away. And that’s when Buffett asked him about the second list, “And what about the ones you didn’t circle?”
Flint replied, “Well, the top 5 are my primary focus, but the other 20 come in a close second. They are still important so I’ll work on those intermittently as I see fit. They are not as urgent, but I still plan to give them a dedicated effort.”
To which Buffett replied, “No. You’ve got it wrong, Mike. Everything you didn’t circle just became your Avoid-At-All-Cost list. No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you’ve succeeded with your top 5.”
I love Buffett’s method because it forces you to make hard decisions and eliminate things that might be good uses of time, but aren’t great uses of time. So often the tasks that derail our focus are ones that we can easily rationalize spending time on.
Buffett’s method and Eisenhower’s Box both help us with focusing on the tasks that matter most, but chances are, you’re probably also losing productivity to everyday distractions in the background of every task you work on.
Even if you know
which task to work on, you can still easily be distracted if you’re in an environment divides your time and energy. Let’s talk about that now… Eliminate Half–Work At All Costs
In our age of constant distraction, it’s stupidly easy to split our attention between what we should be doing and what society bombards us with. Usually, we’re balancing the needs of messages, emails, and to–do lists at the same time that we are trying to get something accomplished. It’s rare that we are fully engaged in the task at hand.
I call this division of your time and energy “half–work.”
Here are some examples of half–work…
You start writing a report, but stop randomly to check your phone for no reason or to open up Facebook or Twitter.
You try out a new workout routine. Two days later, you read about another “new” fitness program and try a little bit of that. You make little progress in either program and so you start searching for something better.
Your mind wanders to your email inbox while you’re on the phone with someone.
Regardless of where and how you fall into the trap of half–work, the result is always the same: you’re never fully engaged in the task at hand, you rarely commit to a task for extended periods of time, and it takes you twice as long to accomplish half as much.
Half–work is reason why you’re able to get more done on your last day before vacation (when you really focus) than you do in the 2 weeks previous (when you’re constantly distracted).
Like most people, I deal with this problem all of the time and the best way I’ve found to overcome it is to block out significant time to focus on one project and eliminate everything else.
For example, I carve out a few hours (or even an entire work day) to deep dive on an important project. I’ll leave my phone in another room and shut down my email, Facebook, and Twitter.
This complete elimination of distractions is the only way I know to get into deep, focused work and avoid fragmented sessions where you’re merely doing half–work.