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  • How To Be Productive: The Ultimate Guide For 2021

Everyone wants to know how to be productive.

The problem, however, is that most people think a new tool or app will make them more productive. And so they shell out money on the latest planner or task manager, thinking that it will help them get more things done.

This almost never works. Why? Because productivity isn’t the result of a specific tool. Some of the most productive people in the world rely only on pen and paper. Rather, being a productive person is the result of organizing your life in specific ways.

In this guide, we’re going to show you how to be productive at work, at home, or wherever you are. Just as productivity isn’t dependent on tools, it’s also not location-dependent.

Ready? Let’s dive in.

What Does It Mean To Be A Productive Person? 

Before we talk about how to be productive, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page regarding exactly what productivity is. If you don’t have a clear understanding of productivity, you won’t make much progress no matter how many different strategies you employ.

So what is productivity? Simply put, it’s getting the right things done in an efficient manner.

Productivity isn’t necessarily about getting more things done, although you will get more done if you’re productive. First and foremost, productivity is about getting the right things done. The things that actually matter and make a tangible difference in your life.

Busy ≠ Productive

It’s possible to get many things done without actually being productive. Sending a flurry of emails might feel good, but if it keeps you from doing your most important work then it’s actually hurting you. Productive people know what to work on and then have strategies for getting those things done. 

As Cal Newport says in his book Deep Work:

If you service low-impact activities, therefore, you’re taking away time you could be spending on higher-impact activities. It’s a zero-sum game.

The most productive people are able to identify high-impact activities and then do those activities on a consistent basis. 

Now, with that being said, let’s look at specific productivity tips and strategies. 

How To Be Productive: 13 Powerful Productivity Tips

Here are 13 productivity tips to help you accomplish more, get things done, and become the person you want to be. 

1. Set SMART Goals

Goals keep you focused on the things you really want to accomplish, both personally and professionally. If you don’t have goals, you’re much more likely to drift, wasting hours on things that aren’t all that important to you. 

A concrete, actionable, meaningful goal, on the other hand, helps you focus your attention on the big things you want to accomplish. 

Each goal you set should follow the SMART framework:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

A list of SMART goals enables you to spend less time on low-value activities and more on those few, highly valuable tasks that will make the biggest difference in your life. 

For a more in-depth guide to setting powerful goals that supercharge your productivity, read our Ultimate Guide To Goal Setting.

2. Do Your Most Important Work First

If you want to be productive, each day should begin with work on your Most Important Task (MIT). This is the one task that will produce the biggest results for you. You have the most energy at the beginning of the day and should spend that energy on work that will make a significant difference. Don’t start the day with low-impact tasks, such as email or browsing social media. That will significantly lower your productivity. 

At the beginning of each day (or the night before), look at your to-do list and identify 1 – 3 MITs. Use the 80/20 rule to identify the tasks that will have the biggest impact in terms of productivity. 

Don’t work on anything else until you’ve gotten your MITs done. Focus on one task – your most important one – and then move on to the next most important. This strategy ensures that even if you don’t get anything else done,  at the end of the day you’ve worked on the things that matter the most. 

In his book Eat That Frog!, Brian Tracy puts it this way:

If a task or activity has large potential positive consequences, make it a top priority and get started on it immediately. If something can have large potential negative consequences if it is not done quickly and well, that becomes a top priority as well.

Prioritize With The Q2 Matrix

If you’re struggling to prioritize your tasks, you may find the Q2 Matrix helpful.

Things that are both important and urgent obviously to be a high priority. Important tasks that aren’t urgent still need to get done but you don’t necessarily have to work on them immediately. Tasks that fall in the bottom two quadrants should be avoided as much as possible. 

Some of your bigger goals and desires will probably be in Q2. For example, say that you want to write a book. There probably won’t be a hard and fast deadline on this goal, which means you’ll need to be intentional about setting aside time to work on it. If you don’t, you’ll never make progress. The most productive people in the world intentionally carve out time specifically for Q2 work. 

3. Focus On Doing Deep Work

“Deep work”, a term coined by Cal Newport, is the process of carving out lengthy, uninterrupted blocks of time during which you can focus intently on a challenging task. During deep work, you shut out all distractions and give all your energy and attention to the one task before you. 

Without periods of deep work, it’s extremely difficult to make progress on important work. If you’re constantly bombarded by distractions, you can’t be especially thoughtful or work through complex problems. 

Whether you want to write a book, code a new app, or finish an important slide deck, you need uninterrupted chunks of time. Look at any highly successful, productive person, and you’ll see deep work. Productivity and deep work go hand in hand. 

Every year, Bill Gates takes a “Think Week”, during which he completely isolates himself so that he can spend time reading, thinking, researching, and deciding what really matters to him. 

The famed physicist Richard Feynman invented a myth that he was irresponsible so that he wouldn’t have to serve on committees and could devote himself to concentrated work. 

Bottom line: if you want to be productive you absolutely must schedule regular deep work sessions for yourself. You need to utilize time management skills so that you consistently engage in deep work. 

4. Eliminate Distractions

Distractions are the opposite of deep work. That Buzzfeed quiz about NSYNC? It doesn’t add a ton of value to your life, and doing it when you should be working on something important keeps you from being productive. When you get distracted, it kills your focus and dramatically decreases your productivity. 

If you want to increase productivity, you need to strategically eliminate distractions so that you can focus. This is especially important in the morning when you’re working on your most important goals. 

Optimize Your Environment

Now, unless you live in a monastery, you won’t be able to completely get rid of all distractions. However, there are some simple steps you can take to optimize your surrounding environment:

  • Close communications apps like Slack and email so that notifications don’t break your focus. 
  • Mute your phone or put it in a desk drawer where you can’t see it.
  • Close your office door or listen to focus music to mute exterior noise.
  • Use distraction blocking apps like Freedom or RescueTime so that you can’t access social media sites like Facebook or Reddit. 

If something important pops into your mind while you’re doing deep work, write it down on a piece of paper and come back to it later. This allows you to stay focused and get things done without forgetting things. 

The more you optimize your environment for focused attention, the more you’ll accomplish each day and week. 

5. Delegate as much as possible

Delegation is one of the superpowers of productive people. The more you can delegate tasks that are either low value or outside of your skillset, the more you can focus on the right things. Trying to do everything might make you feel more productive but it actually reduces the impact you can have. 

The reality is that, like Liam Neeson in Taken, you have a specific set of skills and talents, and your time is best spent on activities that make use of them. The more time you spend on low-value activities (tedious paperwork, etc.), the less time you spend on high productivity activities that only you can really do.

Whenever possible, delegate tasks that can be easily done by someone else. This could include things like:

  • Setting up appointments
  • Responding to certain emails
  • Filing information
  • Making phone calls
  • Running errands
  • Data entry
  • Writing
  • Posting on social media

As you look for tasks to delegate, use the 80/20 rule. Look for the 20% of tasks that produce 80% of the results, and give yourself to them. Then delegate the rest. 

If you’re a sole proprietor or part of a small team, you may want to consider hiring a virtual assistant. This is often considerably cheaper than hiring someone full-time, especially if the assistant lives in a less expensive part of the world.

6. Automate As Much As Possible

Technology has made it increasingly easy to automate repetitive, tedious tasks, which is a huge win when it comes to time management. Platforms like Zapier, IFTTT, and Integromat allow you to connect disparate apps and then put many tasks on autopilot. 

For example, say you run a Shopify e-commerce store and want to create a new row in a Google Sheet for each new order. Instead of doing it manually, you can use a tool like Zapier to do the entire process automatically. 

While it may only take you five minutes to do this job manually, if you do it 12 times in a week, that’s an hour you’ve lost. Small things add up when it comes to productivity. Automation lets you reclaim lost time so that you can spend it more productively. 

Look at your workflow for relatively simple tasks that you do repetitively. This could include things like sending specific emails to new customers, moving information between two applications, creating the same type of documents over and over, etc. These kinds of tasks are prime candidates for automation. 

7. Say “No” Frequently

The most productive, successful people regularly say, “No.” They understand that if they do everything asked of them, they will never be able to accomplish their own tasks and goals. They reject many good opportunities so they can focus on the best ones. 

Steve Jobs understood the power of saying, “No,” to seemingly good things so that he could focus on the best things. As Walter Isaacson notes in his book Steve Jobs

Instead of encouraging each group to let product lines proliferate based on marketing considerations, or permitting a thousand ideas to bloom, Jobs insisted that Apple focus on just two or three priorities at a time. “There is no one better at turning off the noise that is going on around him,” [Tim] Cook said. “That allows him to focus on a few things and say no to many things. Few people are really good at that.”

Obviously, there will be times when it’s appropriate to help someone. However, don’t be in the habit of always doing everything asked of you. If you want to be productive, you need to be in control of your schedule. 

If you struggle with turning people down, consider the advice of Derek Sivers (creator of CD Baby):

When you say no to most things, you leave room in your life to really throw yourself completely into that rare thing that makes you say “HELL YEAH!” Every event you get invited to. Every request to start a new project. If you’re not saying “HELL YEAH!” about it, say “no.” We’re all busy. We’ve all taken on too much. Saying yes to less is the way out.

Productivity and saying, “No” go hand in hand. Stop saying yes to everything and take back control of your week

8. Embrace Daily Rituals and Habits

Rituals are actions that you do consistently without much thought, like drinking a cup of tea first thing in the morning. If you want to be productive, consider creating rituals and habits that will help you get more things done. 

For example, you could create a nightly ritual where you look at your task list and select your three Most Important Tasks for the next day. Or you could create a morning ritual that involves 20 minutes of exercise and taking time to read a book that puts you in a productive, energized state of mind. Or you could establish a daily habit where you review your goals for 15 minutes before you start the workday. 

At first, you may encounter some resistance when doing your rituals, especially if they run counter to a long-ingrained behavior. In general, it takes around 30 days to solidify a habit. 

But the more you do them, the easier they’ll become and the more integral to your life they’ll feel. Rituals increase productivity by reducing the amount you must think about certain tasks. You simply do them because they’re a key part of your day. 

9. Reduce Decision Fatigue

Barack Obama, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg have a similar approach to fashion. Jobs always wore jeans and a black turtleneck. Zuck prefers jeans and a blue t-shirt every day. Obama exclusively wore gray and blue suits during his time in the White House. 

Why this fashion minimalism? Because little decisions add up over the day. 

Speaking to Vanity Fair, Obama said this:

You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.

Jobs, Zuckerberg, and Obama all understand the reality of decision fatigue. 

You begin each day with a limited amount of mental strength and attention, and every decision you have to make requires some of that energy. Eventually, decision fatigue begins to set in. You simply don’t have the mental resources available to sort through all the relevant information and make a smart decision. 

The more mentally fatigued you are, the more difficult it becomes to work productively. It’s much easier to be distracted and much harder to focus. 

Want to be more productive? Cut down on the number of decisions you need to make in a day. Some simple ways to do that include:

  • Plan your schedule the night before
  • Make meals in advance
  • Simplify your wardrobe
  • Follow a daily routine (wake, eat, workout at the same time, etc.)
  • Identify your Most Important Tasks each night

Making fewer decisions increases the amount of mental energy available to you each day, which you can then use on important activities. 

10. Plan Your Day In Advance

Your calendar is a very powerful productivity tool. When you plan your day (or even week) in advance, you can carve out specific blocks of time during the day when you will do deep work. 

If you don’t schedule your days ahead of time, you spend your days in reactive mode. You have to constantly decide what to work on, as well as navigate the requests of others. If you want to be in control of your schedule, you need to be proactive. 

We recommend a scheduling method called structural productivity. You thoroughly plan out your day while also giving yourself some flexibility. 

A structured day might look like this:

  • 6 am – 7:30 am – Morning Ritual (coffee, meditation, journaling, etc.)
  • 7:30 am – 8:30 am – Exercise
  • 8:30 am – 9:00 am – Meal #1
  • 9:00 am -12:00 pm – Allocated Time
  • 12:00 pm – 1:00 pm – Meal #2 (includes 30 minute break)
  • 1:00 pm – 6:00 pm – Allocated Time
  • 6:00 pm – 7:00 pm – Meal #3 (includes 30 minute break)
  • 7:00 pm – 9:00 pm – Allocated Time
  • 9:00 pm – 10:00 pm – Evening Ritual (reading, prayer, etc.)
  • 10:00 pm – Sleep

During allocated times, you work on the items in your task list. You focus on knocking out your most important tasks during those specific time windows. You can also use allocated time for other important things, like time with friends and family.

Ideally, the first allocated time block should be used for deep work since that is when you’re freshest and have the most energy. Don’t check email or social media. Focus on the one thing that will produce the biggest results. 

The second allocated block could be divided between deep work and less valuable activities, such as responding to emails and Slack messages. 

The Pomodoro Technique

If you want to be even more productive, use the Pomodoro Technique during your allocated times. Here’s how it works:

It works like this:

  • Identify your most important task. 
  • Set a timer for 25 minutes.
  • Work on the task for 25 minutes (one Pomodoro session).
  • Take a 5-minute break. 
  • After four Pomodoro sessions, take a 15-20 minute break

Using this technique keeps you intensely focused for short bursts of time while also providing time for you to take mental breaks. 

11. Manage Your Energy

It’s incredibly difficult to be productive if you’re tired all the time. If you want to be productive, you need to learn to properly manage your energy. 

Jason Fried, founder, and CEO of Basecamp said this:

While people often say there’s not enough time, remember that you’ll always have less attention than time

Or, to put it another way, there may be 24 hours in a day but you certainly don’t have that much energy. This means you need to be strategic about both recharging your energy and working at your peak moments. 

If you work non-stop without a break, you’ll inevitably burn out. Your strength rises and falls at different hours each day, and you need to take strategic mental breaks when you feel your strength waning. 

How To Recharge Your Body

Strategies for recharging aren’t particularly complicated:

  • Get sufficient sleep
  • Eat healthy meals that actually fuel your body
  • Exercise regularly
  • Take mental breaks throughout the day
  • Do activities that recharge you mentally and physically

In order to work at peak moments, you need to understand something called “ultradian rhythms”. Without getting into the weeds too much, your body naturally progresses through cycles of high and low energy throughout the day. 

In the book The Power of Full Engagement, Jim Loehr says:

These ultradian rhythms help to account for the ebb and flow of our energy throughout the day. Physiological measures such as heart rate, hormonal levels, muscle tension and brain-wave activity all increase during the first part of the cycle—and so does alertness. After an hour or so, these measures start to decline. Somewhere between 90 and 120 minutes, the body begins to crave a period of rest and recovery.

If you want to be productive, you need to work in concert with your body, not against it. Instead of constantly plowing through your day, arrange your schedule so that you can do focused work for 60 to 90 minutes, followed by a period of rest. 

By working with your body instead of against it, you’ll be much more productive. 

12. Read, Read, Read

This may sound counterintuitive, but reading is one of the biggest ways to increase your productivity. Famed investor Warren Buffet is a prolific reader, as is Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Oprah Winfrey, and many more of the world’s most successful people. 

Why read? 

Because it allows you to learn ways to work smarter and avoid mistakes others have made. You can be more efficient and discover new ways to think and operate. You can learn how the most successful people in the world have gotten to where they have. 

So instead of spending hours on your phone, read books that will change your life. No, you won’t get the likes that come when you post on social media, but you’ll get something much more valuable. 

13. Get In The Habit Of Waking Early

If you were to take a survey of the habits of highly successful people, you would probably find rising early to be a common theme. Those people who start the day in the early hours of the morning accomplish more in less time than those who wake up later. 

Why is it so effective to start the day early? Because it allows you to set the tone for your entire day. You can take the time to work through your daily rituals, think about what you want to accomplish that day, and visualize achieving a meaningful goal. 

Philip Doddridge said:

The difference between rising at five and seven o’clock in the morning, for forty years, supposing a man to go to bed at the same hour at night, is nearly equivalent to the addition of ten years to a man’s life.

How To Be A Morning Person

Now, you might not think of yourself as a morning person, but you can learn to become one. Here are some simple tips to help you learn to embrace the early hours of the day:

  • Splash your face with water as soon as you wake up
  • Drink cold water
  • Stretch
  • Watch, read, or listen to something motivational
  • Drink tea or coffee
  • Exercise
  • Express gratitude 

One thing NOT to do is get on your phone first thing when you wake up. This is one of those habits that’s easy to slip into but will ultimately sabotage your morning. 

14. Take Care Of Your Body

This is one of those tips that seems obvious but needs to be stated. If you don’t take care of your body, you won’t be productive, no matter how much goal setting you do. You may be able to survive for a little while on junk food and little sleep, but eventually, it’s going to catch up with you. 

Your body is your most important asset, and you really need to take care of it. Create healthy habits that will support your body, like drinking plenty of water, consistently exercising, eating food that’s actually healthy, and taking rest breaks throughout the day to recover. 

Next time you’re tempted to grab a candy bar, stop and think about a particular goal that’s important to you. Ask yourself, “Is this going to help me become the person I want to?” Instead of fueling yourself with junk, try to fuel yourself with things that will help you feel good. 

Productive People Can Be Productive Anywhere

The good news is that when you know how to be productive, it doesn’t matter where you are or what’s happening. You can be productive at work, home, or on the road. 

But here’s the thing. 

Productivity doesn’t just happen. It takes intentional effort and you have to implement specific strategies. You have to work hard to do the most important things first and do deep work that actually matters. You need to actively eliminate distractions, delegate where possible, and automate repetitive activities. 

You have to be okay with saying no, embrace rituals, eliminate decisions, and plan your day ahead of time. And you need to be disciplined when it comes to managing your energy. 

However, if you do these things, you’ll be amazed at the results. You’ll get more done than you ever thought possible. 

So do the work. It’s worth it. 

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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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