Three Ways to Actually Be Productive

January 3rd, 2014

Three Ways to Actually be Productive Pareto Principle Time Management Ellis Friedman BurrellesLuce Fresh IdeasThere are countless sites and blog posts dedicated to productivity; it’s even the most popular category on the BurrellesLuce Fresh Ideas blog. But what are we talking about when we talk productivity? Is it improving focus, or just getting more done? And why is it that we still feel the need to spend our time (which could be spent productively) reading about other people’s productivity habits and looking for lifehacks to make us more productive?

Here’s what productivity is not: It’s not about forcing yourself to work until midnight and rise at 5 a.m. every day. More time awake does not equal more stuff done.

Productivity is not multitasking. Sometimes, you can’t avoid trying to do two things at once. But if you’re busy writing one thing and talking about another, you’ll wind up spending more time trying to do two things at once and going back and fixing them than you would if you gave things the proper attention in the first place. Focus provides clarity; this applies to activities, priorities and thinking.

Finally, productivity is not about doing everything, but doing what is important. Because no one can do everything, and that’s okay.

Take Breaks

There’s a real stigma around relaxation, be it actually using the vacation days you’re allotted, or stepping out for a break to take a walk and recharge. We think if you don’t look like you’re doing something, you must be lollygagging, and that toxic mindset is itself counterproductive.

If you’d been walking for two hours, you’d stop to rest, right? So doesn’t your brain need a rest after working for two hours? It does, so start building breaks into your day to recharge your mental energy. It’s usually a lot easier to focus after coming back from a break and letting your brain think about something else – or nothing at all – for a few minutes. Plus, a lot of “Aha!” moments come during mental downtime, like when we’re driving, walking, washing dishes, or just being.

Then Do Stuff

Of course, the flip side is disciplining yourself to actually do something after taking a break. But this is a matter of discipline, not work ethic. The best way to establish good habits is to start piecemeal, and getting started is always the hardest part. If you’re really having trouble doing anything or starting a certain project, work in digestible chunks.

Sometimes getting things accomplished requires delegation and collaboration for the best result.  Collaboration can create the “mental break” cycle you need to re-visit more stagnant activities and finally see them through to completion. Teamwork works.  Experiment with what helps you to be most productive and satisfied with your efforts, find the sweet spot, and stick to it.

But Only Do Stuff That Matters

Almost everything is unimportant – even the Harvard Business Review says so. Trying to do everything results in achieving almost nothing. The workaround? Look at everything you do. Chances are, about 20 percent of your effort achieves about 80 percent of your results. This is the Pareto Principle, and it works the other way: 80 percent of efforts achieve just 20 percent of results.

Determine the few things that get results and make those priority tasks. The Harvard Business Review suggests writing a list of your top six things to get done, then crossing off the bottom five and scheduling a 90-minute block to work on just the top item. Every time you go to check social media or email, write down what you’re about to do. Of course, this means avoiding distraction, and that again comes down to discipline and working piecemeal. You might not do it perfectly the first time, but the more you practice, the better you’ll get at getting in a routine, blocking out distraction, and focusing on what’s actually important.

5 Responses to “Three Ways to Actually Be Productive”

  1. Ellis Friedman says:

    Hi Amita,
    Thanks for the comment! Yes, productivity is definitely more about just churning through the day. There are only so many time management tips one can go through before stopping for a moment and reassessing whether doing “stuff” is meeting the goal.

  2. Great article Ellis! There are a lot of misconceptions about what productivity is and isn’t and you’ve done a pretty good job at explaining.

    I would add to your list of DOs outsourcing. You mention to do only the important things, but often times the “unimportant” ones need to be done as well. Luckily, you can outsource most of them, both in your personal and business life.

  3. Ellis Friedman says:

    Hi Kosio,
    I think outsourcing makes a great addition to the list, and you’re right, all that stuff still has to get done. Maybe that will be a good topic for a future post, how to outsource. Thanks for the comment and the idea!

  4. Liz says:

    I writing a comment way after January, but I agree productive working is not about staying past 5 pm (for workers that’s called overtime, and for a company – overtime pay is not ‘productive’ to the company bottom line.)

    Correct, productive working isn’t just about churning it out. The most important objective for management to stress to workers in order to be productive is quality rather than quantity. Slow it down rather than speed up. As the article says: multi tasking is not productive. I think I figured out that whoever coined the term ‘multi tasker’ really just found a new way to say worker. i.e. one who has a broad enough knowledge and experiences of doing different things (data entry, proofreading, filing, organizing, typing correspondence, answering the phone correctly, and opening mail)
    TASK work. Whoever coined that term, did not mean ‘a person’ had to do every task
    all at the same time; THAT would be counter productive and of course quality would

    Workers who know how to handle whatever is asked of them, are productive to the
    company. So therefore, in order for a firm to flourish productively, workers are
    a necessity. Good workers. Loyal workers. (loyal in that they come in every day,
    on time and ‘just do’…no politicking to get ahead; their joy is in ‘the doing.’

    Quality of the work done ‘one task at a time’ brings more customers to a firm. More
    customers, more work, more work, more need for workers. QUALITY should be the main point management stresses.

    For office support; I think it is time to call the hourly worker to weekly wage workers,
    speak to such staff about what has to be done ‘for the week’ not just ‘the day.’ Reward
    workers who complete the tasks given for the week early with more work to do. When
    jobs are given out daily, worker has to wait til given more or ask and workers are
    sometimes hesitant to ask for more to do; in fear of other workers watching. So;
    management: manage work flow by giving it out by the week, not day and giving
    adult workers deadlines to meet (reasonable deadlines) Or give the work by the
    month. Let workers ‘manage’ their desks; and keep them supplied with work.
    (this is important since computers do it so fast) Since computers do it fast, allow
    TIME on workers side to do it right the first time, a bit more slowly if some do it
    slow and detail mindedly, as long as it is done and done right. Workers want to
    work…so trust them with ‘a list’ of tasks to accomplish with deadlines for each
    task written in the memo.

    If a department is sized just right; not too many and not too little…everyone will be busy working and everyone will be productive.

  5. Liz says:

    management manage work flow. Is what I wrote above. Trust WORKERS to do what they LIKE doing WORKING.

    and now from the experts at Business Management Daily,stid.29872,sid.366686,lid.9,mid.26011

    TOUGH to build a ‘work ethic’ when there’s not enough for ‘a worker’ to do.

    Part of the reason work is less: Automation and Computerization and ‘speed’ of doing.
    A letter is typed once… to change merely means chaining a line or two and the
    salutation, ending, date of letter, maybe particulars. So fine.. but TIS DANGEROUS
    to think ‘what is changed’ remains changed. (forget to hit the save button and the
    letter to Mr. Davis starts Dear Mr Jones…and woe if Mr. Jones gets info meant for
    Mr. Davis; like maybe Mr. Davis gets a service Mr. Jones is not getting. WOE OH
    WOE. (for this reason…proofreaders are as needed as typists) One types the
    template letters, one makes changes, one proofreads ALL should have enough to
    do and COMPANY remains of quality. Allowing one all to do and ‘little’ for the other
    makes the other with little ‘bored’ and begins to do what a little sibling would do
    for attention: make trouble (slam cabinets behind busy person perhaps, gossip
    perhaps, stir up rivalry in the cubicle space.

    Forget quantity with automation…focus these days can be quality…since quantity
    is done by the machine. If that means proofreader who reads all day gets paid a
    bit less or works less hours…fine; all workers want to do is to work. Good workers.
    So we need good managers of the work…who designates clearly who is to do what

    Then; if there’s not enough work for two…or three in a department; company
    should not just hire because profit is up and ‘another hired’ is another tax credit
    to the bottom line. Working productively; means there is ENOUGH for all hands
    to be busy in an 8 hour day. If not…work with less or cut the hours of the work
    day; (just as good to the bottom line as a tax credit) Saves on having to hire,
    lay off, pay unemployment insurance, and smudging one’s business image to
    the employee hired in the hope of a long term future. (ahhh yes; a temp hire
    also good…contract position…rather than hire and then not need or hire more
    than needed and worker must endure the taunter who is bored)

    IT’S HARD TO BE A GOOD WORKER when management doesn’t understand how
    to manage ‘the work flow’ / each should do as assigned. Manage and Work.

    Just a though.

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