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This is a guest post by Kayla Matthews. She is a productivity blogger and efficiency enthusiast. You can find her on ProductivityTheory.com, on The Huffington Post, and on Google+ and Twitter.

Just as time goes around on the clock, the wheels of the workday feel like endless exercise on a hamster wheel. Tasks become repetitive, while the to-do list gleefully refills itself without effort. Work-life balance is an elusive tall tale you try to heroically achieve as you order a tall Americano to keep the midnight oil burning.

Meanwhile, there are particularly successful business folk who seem to have it all together, fitting into one day what may take you one week to handle. One of these people is an entrepreneur of a successful startup, volunteers at the soup kitchen and is a single parent of three kids in the tiny terror age range. Oh, there’s also the fact that this entrepreneur has a major following on a personal photography blog, where they post selfies of training for triathlons and drool-inducing photos of healthy and homemade recipes.

How the heck do these people manage to fit it all in? They’re not superheroes or have the might of Paul Bunyan, if he were an entrepreneur, but these mysteriously super-productive people have secrets they need to let you in on stat.

Many Secrets to Success Aren’t Secret: They’re in Scientific Studies

Though many snake oil salesmen will tell you — well, sell you — the one, surefire, golden key to guaranteed success, it’s usually nothing you haven’t heard or read about before. Biographies, workshops and tools all have their place in providing models for guidance, but there’s no use in waiting for the One Big Business Secret to Rule Them All. One person’s path to success won’t be a true path for another, because each person brings a unique personality, background, education and skillset to their career path.

Many of these skills or tactics can be learned or turned into productive and beneficial habits with practice. The path of trial and error can’t be avoided, but you can learn from your failures and those of others. Scientific research provides helpful insight into productivity to avoid tactics that encourage burnout, rather than success and happiness, through reward, a calm mind and focus on signature strengths.

Reward Yourself to Motivate Yourself

To motivate yourself, reward yourself more every day. In one study, a group of college students were given iPods with free audio books that may only be read when they workout out at the gym, while the control group was given plain gift certificates without restrictions. Those college students with restricted reading time on iPods were the most motivated with exercise, gaining a 22 percent boost over their average rate of productivity. The outperformed the control group by 51 percent.

Apply this technique to your daily life by choosing a reward you are passionate about, such as eating dark chocolate or buying a new book. Only give yourself the reward when you complete the task.

You’re Thinking About Your to-Do List Too Much

As your mind races over your to-do list, you feel stuck, like you’re wandering in circles and going nowhere fast. According to the above study, 45 percent of the time you’re awake is spent pondering multiple tasks all at once. This leads to distraction and an inability to focus on the task at hand, and over the long term it affects levels of happiness adversely.

“Nothing is free in this life” is an overused saying, and you might as well be working for free with the amount of time wasted over worrying. Researchers have found that those who manage time away experience a higher quality of life.

To get the most out of your waking hours, allocate what time is designated for certain tasks. Set aside minutes or hours to create a clear task list, increasing your completion rate and allowing for breaks to avoid burnout.

Find Your Signature Strengths Instead

When you contribute to and complete tasks you’re good at, you feel more energetic and happier. According to various studies, the more hours you’re able to utilize your unique strengths, the more you enjoy tasks at hand and reduce stress, sadness and even physical pain.

In one study, the degree of positive emotions linked with hours invested in using signature strengths are high, and these higher percentages are often linked with working longer hours. For seven to nine hours of preferred work, 92 percent of people felt happiness, 91 percent smiled or laughed and 69 percent felt well-rested. For 10 or more hours of preferred work, 93 percent of people felt happiness, 87 percent smiled or laughed and 73 percent felt well-rested.

Studies show if you want to be more productive, happier and must work long hours, do what you love or are good at.

Research helps to provide reference points to measure what others are doing with success and see how it applies to your skillset, while motivating you to deepen your strengths and develop new traits. Successful people also help inspire you to achieve your goals, through observing their career paths and habits.

Successful People Provide Models for Achievement

The lives of the successful appear effortless from a distance, but that’s not the whole story. Successful people have endured many trials and likely revisited their vision several times before achieving goals. Overnight success is the product of many factors and circumstances, from completing an education or apprenticeship to finding the right timing.

The hard-won paths of successful people hold important lessons and wisdom, as a model for success that you may learn from their wins and failures.

1. Don’t Multitask: Do Your One Thing

To better focus on specific tasks, tackle one at a time. Multitasking often means your attention will be divided, which doesn’t help with tasks that require attention to detail.

Jason Goldberg, CEO of Fab.com, says it’s best to focus on one thing and only do your one thing, which marries passion with a real shot at being the best in an untapped market. Never take on unnecessary tasks or meetings that divert your attention from your goal. Choose your passion and develop a specific goal around it, letting your product and mission represent that.

2. Prioritize Tasks Thoughtfully

Prioritize your tasks according to how and when you know they’ll be completed well. Many successful people are creative brainstormers, but they still have to keep track of their ideas.

Lists help you track what you need to do, but the key is to order your list in a way that won’t make you stress or rush. Tony Schwartz, CEO of The Energy Project, believes in prioritizing tasks regularly but thoughtfully, targeting one major task daily until it’s completed.

3. Capture Idea Seeds

Use apps, such as Evernote, to record and organize your ideas, through words, phrases, images, sound and video clips. There’s something to be said for capturing ideas on paper, in a bullet journal or a sketchbook that makes it feel palpable – like the idea is a seed about to manifest new life.

Bill Gates, entrepreneur and philanthropist, placed major value in keeping records of big ideas and has blogged to continue and develop vital conversations about climate change, poverty and other global and humanist ideas.

4. Practice Mindfulness and Meditation

While making task lists and recording your ideas will help ease your wandering mind, other areas of stress may deplete your focus and energy levels. Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh wrote that to liberate the false view of the self and reality, mindfulness helps bring full awareness to the interconnectedness of all people and things. Mindfulness isn’t only found by sitting in a cross-legged position — it can also be applied to ordinary tasks, recognizing the interdependence and flow of one task into the next.

Research also indicates that if you simply focus on your breathing, you may feel the effects of meditation within 20 minutes. That small amount of time daily dedicated to meditation may relieve your anxiety and improve your concentration, literally rewiring your brain.

5. Limit Meetings and Speaking Time

When conducting meetings or speaking events, it’s best to limit time to keep everyone on task and get the most out of the gathering. Valuable time gets eaten up by endless questions that go on far too long, or brainstorming sessions become a room full of people twiddling their thumbs and staring at the ceiling.

Don’t view meetings and speaking arrangements as a necessary obligation to be filled. In this technological age, attention spans are short enough. Successful leaders know how to make the most of the time given to them. What would happen if you take the time you think you need and cut it in half?

6. Write Targeted Emails With Brilliant Subject Lines

Staying on top of emails is important for the successful professional. Knowing how to write good emails means keeping the content concise and focusing on one main message. Save the longer content for a conference call. Your email tone reflects the relationship with the recipient, and it’s important to always edit before clicking send.

The most powerful part of your email is the subject line, often overlooked: Your subject line needs to be specific, instead of vague or uninformative. Use impactful language wisely. Make it knows if the content is urgent and immediate, and be considerate of the recipient. It’s also best to not sporadically spend the day checking your email. Set aside a specific time of day to stay on top of your emails.

7. Possess a Unique Look

Not only do successful people have a unique vision and outlook on life, they have a specific look physically. This person becomes associated with their brand, and over time, aspects of their personal fashion stand out. Think of Salvador Dali’s iconic mustache or Steve Jobs’ black turtleneck and glasses.

Somewhere between the nervous tick, cliché and personal preference is the unique look others associate with you. Do you always drink lattes and are the stereotypical writer in a coffee shop? Do you wear red lipstick or a fedora? Certain signatures are proudly yours, and some of them may feel embarrassing. Part of the journey to success is accepting your unique look, both inner and outer.

8. Stretch Your Legs

Sitting down all day isn’t good for you and is likely to kill you, even if you make the effort to exercise, according to recent research. Sitting for hours, as sedentary behavior, is linked to an increased risk of conditions such as cardiovascular disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes. The World Health Organization also identifies sedentary behavior as the fourth-leading factor of risk for death around the globe.

It’s important to get up at least five minutes every hour and stretch your legs. Go get a cup of water, or walk outside for some fresh air. This is why standing desks are trending among successful professionals.

9. Delegate the Impossible and the Practical

Instead of worrying and getting frustrated over uncertainty when faced with a new task, successful people delegate the impossible and the practical. They are visionaries and pose questions, including how to approach this and who to assign specific tasks.

This doesn’t mean the person is a micromanager or has major control issues. It’s far from that. From hiring an expert tech consultant to a housekeeper, priorities are in check.

The successful person isn’t afraid of getting their hands dirty, either, because the bigger picture is in sight. Once you have your eye on the target, you never look away.

10. Have a Regular Morning Routine

Waking up well-rested to start the day fresh is essential for the successful person, triggering a shift between parts of the day. You’re entering into work mode.

Your morning routine generates a momentum to carry you throughout the rest of the day and maintains work-life balance. Common routines of successful people are journaling, reading, meditation or exercise, for example. You could also make yourself a hearty and healthy breakfast. Experiment and find what works for you.

Tony Robbins, motivational speaker, has his own special and truly unique ritual to begin the day and gives the routine at least 10 to 15 minutes. First, he wakes up and does a cold plunge in 57-degree water for a whole minute. Robbins describes how the temperature shift signals a radical change in his entire system. He also focuses on breathing, gratitude and personal grooming to alleviate any anxiety or distracting thoughts.

11. Have a Regular Nighttime Routine

Getting quality sleep is important for your brain to function properly and for your long-term health. Having a regular nighttime routine is as important as your morning routine.

You don’t simply wake up to success. Sometimes you sleep on it, unwinding and unplugging from the stress of the day. Taking long soak in the tub, walking around the block or reading a book are all ways to relax. As the sun sets, match the indoors to the outdoors and dim the lights for ambience, including putting a filter on your devices since the light will affect your sleep quality.

Shut off devices at least an hour before bed. Don’t let technology separate you from a good night’s rest.

12. Have a Specific End of Day, and Keep It

What’s your cue to end the day? Is it when the work is done, even if that means no dinner or sleep? Do you feel like you’re successful? What does that mean to you?

These are important questions best answered by designating a specific end of day, where business is done and it’s time to go home. Andy Grove, who founded Intel, always kept to his scheduled end of day routine, no matter what was left to be done.

Keeping this end-of-day promise to yourself gives you the freedom and power to choose your level of “enough.” Make yourself the first priority, eat a nice dinner and rest well. There is always tomorrow.

There’s a successful person already inside of you, who has accomplished great goals. Think about what your signature strengths are and how you’ve honed those over the years.

Chances are you’re giving yourself too much grief about a perfect image of what a successful person should be. Innovators, inventors and millionaires have had their trials and tribulations, and very often the bigger win is leaving work at sundown, no matter what. Pathways to success are found in the rituals you give yourself at morning and night, and they’re in the little rewards you give yourself for motivation.

Successful people still provide much wisdom as models for achievement, especially when it comes to one’s look, confidence and personal and professional values. Time spent in meetings, answering emails and sitting at your desk may look productive from afar, but these are time-wasters if you don’t prioritize your time and delegate tasks to others who are eager to help you succeed.

While success looks effortless from the outside, the super-productive hero has seen many wins and failures in reality, and so will you. Take inspiration from their paths, but know you are uniquely equipped to pave your own road to success.

All images by Rawpixel

This is a guest post by Kayla Matthews. She is a productivity blogger and efficiency enthusiast. You can find her on ProductivityTheory.com, on The Huffington Post, and on Google+ and Twitter.

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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. These are all excellent tips. I have heard that taking a cold shower for at least one minute helps to shock your body into productivity. In addition to Tony Robbins, I know someone else who does this, Ryan Biddulph (the Blogger from Paradise).

    I’ve tried it. I hate it. But it works!

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