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Up to this point my life has taken weird twists and turns. I’m a third culture kid. I dropped out of college. I’ve visited over 25 countries. Read over 150 books. I’m in my mid-20s and people decades older than me come to me for advice on time management and productivity.

People come to me for advice all the time because they know I love helping them and I guess I know a thing or two about random stuff that seems to serve them well. It makes me feel old but then again it must be strange for them to see this 16-year-old looking Asian kid spit out wisdom.

That’s one of the big driving forces behind Asian Efficiency – helping and serving people. Or as we internally call it, pulling others up. Over the years I’ve been able to help hundreds of thousands of people from over 200 different countries through Asian Efficiency, but there’s one person I forgot to pay attention to.

My little brother.

He recently turned 18 and he asked me for some productivity advice. He’s really ambitious and already runs a successful e-commerce website that brings enough money to pay for school and his living expenses. But it’s in his blood to take things to the next level (he’s in the Pham family after all…)

“Thanh, if you could be 18 again and knowing what you know now – what would you tell yourself?”

Here’s what I said…

1. Do the most important thing first

eat that frog

If there’s just one productivity tip I would tell myself, it would be this: do the most important thing first. Every single damn day.

When you make this habitual, it will change your life. It did for me and for thousands of other Asian Efficiency clients, customers and readers.

What you prioritize what gets done. Don’t leave things up to chance or when you “have time for it”. It’s like managing your money. If you wait till the end of the month to save money, you’ll end up saving nothing.

Reverse it. At the beginning of the month, set aside a certain amount of money and use the rest to get by. It’s the same thing with your time, your productivity and effectiveness.

Eat that frog. Start your day with the most important thing. The rest will take care of itself.

2. One thing at a time

Multitasking is the biggest productivity myth out there. As an Asian Efficiency aficionado, you already know this, but I wish I knew this at 18.

With more marketing messages coming our way, smartphone interruptions every 5 minutes and countless distractions around us it’s hard to be able to focus on one thing at a time. It’s a tough skill to have but one that can make all the difference.

Someone who can focus on one thing at a time will simply be more productive. The quality of work is better. It gets done faster. And… you’ll feel in control of what you do.

When I see my brother play music and do his homework next to this computer with 15 browser tabs and several windows open – I cringe. I get a headache from just seeing that.

To him that’s completely normal but I reminded him: do one thing at a time. Focus, bro. Focus.

3. Start now, perfect it later

One of the big advantages of being an 18-year-old kiddo is that you still have your whole life ahead of you. The amount of risk you can take when you are young is significantly higher than when you’re older – with a family, mortgage and other financial and social obligations.

That’s why I told my little brother to be bold. Take calculated risks. Be a creator, not a consumer.

Just get started on whatever you need to do or get done. Worry about perfecting it later. Whether it’s starting on your homework, creating a new business or exploring the world. Just do it and worry about the details later.

If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that people who take action get rewarded more often than people who just sit still. Don’t let procrastination become habitual. Become a do-er. When in doubt, take action.

Sure you’ll fail more often, but the rewards are worth it. As my friends and I like to say: play to win. Don’t play not to lose.

4. Take action every day

Being inconsistent was one of my biggest weaknesses. There were times where I would be super productive and then the next day I had nothing to show for it.

There was absolutely no consistency. People couldn’t rely on me and I never got as much done as I could have. This rollercoaster ride of ups and downs didn’t allow me to deliver exceptional results all the time.

Over time I’ve learned the hard way that to be productive and effective, you need to bring the heat consistently.

Use compounding interest to your advantage. If you have $100 today and you get 1% interest on it every day, you’ll end up with more money than when you get 365% interest once a year. Over the rest of your lifetime that’s a huge difference.

It’s the same thing with your work ethic and productivity. Whatever you’re trying to get done – chip away at it one day at a time. No matter how big or overwhelming it might be, take a stab at it each day.

Do the small things when you don’t feel like it. Put in the work when no one is watching. Just do one thing to move forward. It goes back to the idea of being a do-er.

Do, do, do. Each and every day (this sounds like an intro to a “productivity rap song”).

Do this every day and you’ll inevitably get it done. As my friend Charles Ngo would say: “Success is the result of doing the same small things every day over a long period of time.”

5. Chill out once a while


When we’re young, ambitious, hustling and bustling we tend to have this worldview that we always need to be switched on and “grinding”.

There’s definitely a time and place for that. I’ve been through that phase and you can definitely do amazing things with that mindset, but it doesn’t last very long.

As I mentioned in my previous point – it’s all about consistency. Consistency, consistency, consistency.

It’s not the sexiest piece of advice, but that’s how you get amazing things done ALL THE TIME.

In order to do that though – you need to take breaks. It sounds and feels counter-intuitive, but this is the secret sauce that allows you to bring the heat week after week after week.

We humans need to disengage once a while to recharge and motivate ourselves again. It’s like when you go on vacation. After a while you feel the itch again to get back to work. You can replicate that motivation every week. You don’t have to wait for it once a year.

When you’re young, you can get away with 6/1 cycles. Six days working hard, one day off for recovery. Over time, realize that it is okay to take time off to get back in the game.

Each time you hit a big milestone – go out and celebrate it. You’ve earned it. Reflect on it and be grateful for what you have accomplished. It makes all the hard work worth it and it’ll keep you motivated to keep going.

6. Travel alone

travel alone

Quick, what kind of person do you imagine when you hear that this person has it all “figured out” and has found his or her purpose in life?

Most of us would think of someone in their late 30s, early 40s. Although it’s very common that people in their 50s unravel it.

Then when you meet someone young who has it all figured out – it’s kind of strange and you think “I wish I was in that position when I was your age”.

Luckily for my little brother, we can speed up this process. You don’t have to wait till the end of your life to figure it out and to find your purpose. The sooner you find your purpose, the sooner your activities will align with your core values. Once you have this in this place, it’s inevitable that you’ll live a productive life.

In essence, a productive life is where your values and activities are completely aligned. It’s sounds easy in theory, but it’s quite challenging in reality.

The pre-requisite is that you know what your purpose is. This simply takes time and lots of life experiences. A lot people seem to think that you wake up one day and have that “aha moment”. I hate to break it you to, but you’ll end up waiting for decades.

There’s a process to speed this up and that is by traveling alone.

I cannot recommend this enough. Travel alone. Travel by yourself to places that make you feel uncomfortable. Go to countries where you don’t speak the language. Meet people with different values, backgrounds and philosophies. Learn about their culture and immerse yourself as much as you can – by yourself.

When you get out of your comfortable environment that’s when you can get perspective. The more you do it, the faster you’ll figure it out. The faster you can do the work you love, contribute to the world and live a life of your choosing. That’s living productively.

7. Read these books

To get yourself started, do yourself a favor and read these books:

And one last thing – get yourself a Mac. I truly wished I had one when I was 18.

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Thanh Pham

Founder of Asian Efficiency where we help people become more productive at work and in life. I've been featured on Forbes, Fast Company, and The Globe & Mail as a productivity thought leader. At AE I'm responsible for leading teams and executing our vision to assist people all over the world live their best life possible.

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  1. I’m reminded of the phrase, “youth is wasted on the young.” As James mentioned, so many young people don’t take advice to heart when they still have time to use it. Good for your brother for wanting this advice! I like your tips and would add that visualization helps tremendously in reaching goals. Whether it’s charting out a project process or just displaying your motto, having a visual reminder to keep focused on your values and purpose is helpful to me.

  2. Good ideas. The trick is figuring out how to get the younger person to actually follow these ideas. I know when I was at teen I pretty much had it all figured out (yeah, right) or at least I thought I did. So getting that younger person to listen and accept the sage advice of the more experienced is tough. But very worth it as you have pointed out. Good book suggestions too.

    1. I definitely agree, James. I’m 26 and I still get uncomfortable when people give me unsolicited advice like in my teens.

      Judging from Thanh’s story, he let his brother come to him when he was ready. If Thanh just lectured him daily, his brother might have resented all the lecturing on life/productivity/business/etc.

      It’s almost always better to let people come to you, but if they aren’t coming, I think you have to approach it like a salesperson. What are the young person’s pain points? What do they complain about? Once you understand his/her pain points, you can slide in how you used to have that problem until you tried X. Still need to be careful with this, but I’ve had some success with it.

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