Most productivity advice is essentially always the same. If you’re new to self-help, you will be familiar with the most important concepts after reading this post. It will sum up the best advice I have found reading a ton of productivity books over the past ten years. More importantly, I have tried out many of the concepts suggested and these are my top picks. Different productivity methods generally won’t be equally beneficial for everybody. There are some which work for you and some just don’t. But the central aspects always remain the same. So here they are.
The motivation: The best of productivity advice without the “hustle culture”
In the post The Right Mindset for Learning Challenging New Skills, I menioned how some blogposts (like Steve Pavlina’s Do It Now) have massively influenced me when I first got into personal development and productivity books. I’m not on board with the “hustle culture” associated with the productivity movement any longer but I still remember how posts like Pavlina’s 33 Rules to Boost Your Productivity inspired me to work smarter rather than harder.
Actually, even Pavlina’s 33 best tricks are often the gist of other productivity gurus’ best hacks condensed into 2 sentences but he doesn’t cite the sources. He summed up many of his favourite productivity hacks in one blogpost (some of which were his own ideas and some of which just the most common advice in the self-help world at the time). This inspired me to share my own version of that list.
In the meantime, however, even the personal development world has become increasingly aware that the “hustle culture” it heavily promoted in the 1990s and early 2000s is unsustainable and ultimately highly likely leads to burnout (see some thoughts on “the laziness lie” here). A lot of very well known self-help advice stems from that time yet people nowadays might not be aware of the context it originally came from. Back then, a lot of advice centered around “pushing through”, mustering up incredible amounts of self-disiciple, hanging on with little sleep and self-care by mere willpower alone and quite simply “working hard”. This is very apparent in some of the Steve Pavlina blog posts which have inspired me a lot at the time. In a burst of motivation, it’s easy to forget to reflect on the advice given in such resources. I hope this list is a little more modern in that it integrates newer currents of thought and is less “hard on people”.
My 33 favourite “productivity hacks”
Many of the items in my Top 33 are a best of Pavlina but there are also others and – unlike Pavlina’s old post – I tried to always cite (and link to) the sources. The items in the list are mostly independent but I tried to organize the list a little along the following topics: 1-9 are my top productivity techniques which have often been summed up into short mantras (already by the people who invented them). 10-16 is on working smarter and prioritizing. 17-21 on goal setting and planning. 22-25 on habits. 26-30 on staying healthy and work-life-balance. 31-33 is a bit more uncommon advice I personally find very valuable but which isn’t necessarily a staple in such listicles.
So here you go:
- Eat the frog. Pavlina calls it “worst first”. Recurring concept in self-help. Do the hardest/most important task early in the morning (ideally in the first two hours after waking) to have it off your list. That’s where you still have the most energy left. “Eat the frog” is originally from Brian Tracy.
- Just do it. We all know this one. Maybe combine it with Mel Robbins’ 5 second rule (say “5, 4, 3, 2, 1, go” out loud and get moving immediately afterwards). She also refers to this as “parenting yourself” because once you’re an adult, nobody tells you to do the shit you don’t want to do anymore (which sometimes helps). You have probably heard a version of “don’t put it off” in your childhood. I did, too. But it actually took me almost 30 years on this planet and the 3-year-ordeal of writing a PhD thesis to realise how it’s not just about the hustle, willpower or delayed gratification: dreaded tasks truly don’t get easier by putting them off. It’s an illusion that you might feel more like doing it tomorrow. In reality, it will be worse – much, much worse tomorrow! So unless you don’t have a compelling reason (too tired to focus, etc), don’t put it off. Just do it!
- Do less than you could or want to / Leave one in the bar. This is a good recipe for not burning yourself out. But careful, it takes active effort (and/or guts) to stop when you’re currently super-productive. Doing too much today – even when you’re currently super motivated and just want to use it while it lasts – will cause you to be unproductive (“hungover”) the day after. Because you just can’t have it all. Double productivity today means half the productivity tomorrow. Stop when you hit your target for the day (and set it lower than you think you could, stuff always takes much longer than you think!). See Greg McKeown, Essentialism.
- Balance Deep and Superficial Work. Email and administrative busy work inundates us every day. But that’s not what creates value. Make time for deep work without distractions, it’s as simple as that. From Cal Newport’s Deep Work.
- Do it now. If a task takes less than 2 minutes to complete, do it now. This is from David Allen’s classic Getting Things Done (GTD) method. You should do these tasks as they come up because it will be more work to write them down on your to do list than to just complete them. Be careful that you don’t let those 2min tasks distract you from Deep Work though, for example, by only checking channels where new such to dos could come in (like email) when you actually have time to complete them.
- Clean slate / Ready state. That means always put things back after you’ve used them, like wash and put back the dishes immediately. Always keep your things in a ready state, so you don’t waste time the next time you need your stuff/space. Connected to the next rule:
- Touch it once. You can save yourself lots of time (and also mental energy) with regard to chores if you make it a habit to only “touch things once”. That means when I get home, I don’t sit down or start doing anything before I have put my work stuff away where it belongs, for example. I don’t “park” my dishes somewhere after I’m done eating. I either wash them rightaway or put them in the dishwasher. If you touch things more than once, that means you already had it in your hand, you already had the momentum but wasted it. In order to get rid of the annoying chore, you need to muster the activation energy again and you won’t be more motivated tomorrow to do yesterday’s chores (you now don’t even feel connected to anymore). This often falls under the “Do it now” / 2 minute rule / clean slate category anyway, so as you can see, many of these methods are interconnected. I pretend that I’m literally glued to the post I took from the letterbox until it’s processed. I’m not allowed to sit down after work before my work bag/stuff is stored away. It’s essentially a starting cue for a mini-ritual/habit.
- (Speed) Batch. Group similar tasks (like email, administrative tasks, errands, etc.) into one time block. To save even more time, put on a timer, set a time limit somehow or use an already exisiting deadline (like “Can I answer all those emails before the meeting in 20 minutes?”) to speed things up.
- Timeboxing, focus blocks and the “90 minute workday”: Steve Pavlina recommends to work in focus blocks where you have a clear goal before you start, you set a timer (timeblock/timebox) for 90 minutes and then try to work as fast as you can to finish the task (single-tasking, no distractions allowed whatsoever because they break your flow). This is a gamified way of eliminating procrastination (you have to be as fast as possible). Afterwards or in between blocks, take breaks as needed. Make a clear cut between either “working/focusing hard” and “time completely off” (also off digital devices because they don’t let your brain relax! As per scientific studies!). It’s essential to both your productivity and well-being! These 90min can seem dreadful and lead to procrastination if you let perfectionism get in the way. They are a great way to practice your Pareto 80/20 skills: Come up with creative ways to get the task (has to be feasible somehow so careful with the goal setting!) done faster or at least be actually done with it after the 90 minutes are over. Getting it done feels rewarding, so make sure to stay focused. Nothing is worse than feeling like you wasted a total 1,5h block and aren’t any closer to your goal than before. Sadly, this can happen easily, so you need to stay disciplined – the reward is being done afterwards. If you deprive yourself of the reward, you won’t be motivated to start a 90 minute focus block next time. Keep them sacred and stay on track using a visual timer. Use positive reinforcement to make this easier!
- Use the Pareto principe (80/20 rule). It states that 20% of work will yield 80% of the result whereas the last 20% (“making it perfect”) takes 80% of the work. Is that really worth it? Can you get away with “done rather than perfect” for certain tasks?
- Use the power of the last minute. Parkinson’s law states that a task will expand to fill the time available for it. Use (artifical) deadlines or gamify by using timeboxes and trying to beat the clock. Like “Can I finish this before my lunch date?” – I’m the Queen of last minute productivity but I’m also always late (sorry friends!).
- Know your PQO. That’s the Prolific Quality Output which will move you forward in your work and goals (the “currency” for success in your field, like publications and grant money in Academia). It’s likely the product of Deep Work and the idea is from Brendon Burchard’s High-Performance Habits. Try to produce PQO each week and plan/track it. It’s kind of like Karen Kelsky’s “add one line to your CV every month”.
- Get rid of tasks. As per the famous Eisenhower Matrix, you can either do that by delegating (if you’re in a position to do so), by deleting them or uncommitting from them.
- Uncommit from something or find something to automate. Having one less thing on your plate can sometimes make a huge difference. Plus, it’s a one-off action which will benefit you a lot in the future. So when you’re feeling overwhelmed, ask yourself if there’s any action that you only need to perform once to make your life easier and save many to dos in the future. Bonus: If you can, ask “Could I throw money at this problem?” or “What if this was easy?” and see if a quick fix comes to mind that money can buy. Sometimes that’s the case but you weren’t even thinking about it before because it felt decadent. Sometimes that’s the grown-up thing to do (if it’s within your means).
- Work smarter rather than harder: Work less hours. Actively limit the amount of hours you’ll put in and stop after the time is up (see “switch off completely”). No matter if there are still “seemingly urgent” things to be done. Assess whether those deadlines are really critical hard deadlines which contribute to your goals or just other people’s artificial emergencies. Start by finding the one thing which will make a huge difference (see Pareto principle). Now that you know there are some tasks massively more effective than others, what can you remove or stop doing? Otherwise, subtract and work on the biggest factors limiting you rather than doing more things when trying to be more productive. See Greg McKeown, Essentialism.
- Leverage the Minimum Effective Dose (MED). Tim Ferriss has brought up this concept, termed after pharmaceutical substances. The idea is that, for example for learning certain skills, there’s always a minimum effective dose when something will start paying off. It might actually be much less than you had originally thought – consider Josh Kauffman’s 20h to learn anything (Fun Fact: I used this method to learn to play “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows” on the Banjolele. It’s quite epic, believe me).This is useful because it means you don’t need 10.000 hours of deliberate practice to get better at things or to learn something. I also discuss this here.
- “Process, not product” Timeboxing. To avoid procrastination, plan your days around “processes” (like “work on my PhD thesis for 1h” rather than “finish chapter 2”). That way, you won’t feel bad about not finishing the task despite the fact that you should be proud of yourself that you put in an hour of highly focused work. This is suitable especially for learning/studying as well as for long-term stuff like writing your thesis. Found in: Barbara Oakley, A Mind for Numbers. She recommends Pomodoro timeboxing but any sort of timeboxing will work. Kind of in opposition to Steve Pavlina’s 90min focus blocks where having a clear goal and completing it is key. They’re both good methods but for different use cases. The focus blocks will be frustrating for large long-term projects. But if you can break tasks up into smaller goals, you might still want to use Pavlina’s method instead. Try both and know thyself!
- Set goals, translate them into actionable tasks (“action steps”) you can check off from your to do list (make them concrete) and then measure your progress. What gets measured gets managed (Peter Drucker). If you don’t know where you’re going and you’re not tracking your progress how will you know when you get there and how can you tell if you’re even going in the right direction? The “translation process” is essential because we often put things on our todo list which aren’t formulated in an actionable way. Then we don’t know how to complete the task and it gets put off. Often, these items are actually projects rather than tasks (I’d often put “write PhD thesis” on my list – whatever the hell that means. No wonder I was procrastinating!).
- Future logs and the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 exercise. Instead of copying some todos between todo lists every week, write them in a “future log” once you realize you won’t be able to complete them now. From Ryder Caroll’s Bullet Journal Method. Write them into your calender in a few month’s time or whenever they’re due. This will help getting them off your mind. You don’t need them looming over you at times where you don’t even intend (or are capable) to do anything about them. Banish them from your mind knowing that the info is written down somewhere as a reminder and you’ll find it again once you reach that time in your calender where you will actually do something about it. Also, you might want to try the 5 years, 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days, 1 hour goal setting / brainstorming method (seems weird at first but really helps you get creative and put things into perspective).
- 20 minutes to purpose: Pavlina recommends to sit down with a piece of paper and write down as many possibilities for what the purpose of your life could be. Stay with it for a whole twenty minutes. Generate and note down as many ideas as you possibly can. Don’t overthink it. Then pick the one which most resonates with you. It might not make sense at first and it might not make sense to other people around you. Mine was “Help people by doing what I love”. I came up with this almost ten years ago and I actually believe it’s still true for me: I can’t save the whole world alone and I’m not an expert in everything – but I can make a difference, especially in a field which I love because that’s what I’m best at. I see it in teaching DH and maintaining this blog all the time: It’s not the main thing I do (which, arguably, is/should be my research) but it just warms my heart to know that I have helped someone. Is it a lot of work and hassle at times? Of course. But knowing that just one person might have benefitted from it makes it worth the while for me. It’s what keeps me going. Sounds cheesy but it’s the truth. Knowing your purpose is important so you can prioritize, what to say yes/no to and to remain inspired when the going gets tough.
- 20 ways to improve: Another Pavlina hack in which you have to brainstorm 20 ways in which you could improve (whatever it is you want to improve). Don’t stop earlier. Force yourself to come up with 20 things even if they seem silly or unrealistic. The goal is to push yourself to become creative. You’ll probably come up with some old-but-gold ideas which repeat themselves each time you do the exercise but maybe you get lucky and unlock something new. Could help you get out of a rut.
- 30 days to success: Steve Pavlina invented the concept of 30 day challenges to try a new habit. (He actually called them „30-day trials“ inspired by software at the time but nowadays, YouTube knows them as „challenges“ or „self-experiments“.) You have to keep going and aren’t allowed off days. This is supposed to encourage habit formation. Used to love this idea and all sorts of challenges in the past, not so much anymore now but that shouldn’t stop you from trying it! It was motivating to me when I first came across the idea.
- Mini-Habits or Kai-Zen. It means that you should set goals which are too easy to fail (like do one push-up). This can get you over the initial hurdle keeping you from getting started. Once you have gotten started, it’s often quite easy to continue. Or you stop right there and focus on building a habit before you do more.
- Work on transitions or optimize your workspace instead of trying to be more motivated. In Atomic Habits (also discussed here a little) James Clear makes the point that good habits have much more to do with optimizing your environment (make bad habits hard to do and good habits easy) and managing transitions (like have good triggers for habits or focus on habit initiation rituals more than mustering the energy to do a habit you want to establish, like putting on your exercise clothes and getting out of the door). Once this intial hurdle is done, you’ll often find it’s easy to keep going.
- Don’t check your phone first thing in the morning and do 10 minutes of something useful instead. Found in Barbara Oakley, A Mind for Numbers.
- Switch off completely. Plan at least one hour every day to do sth for yourself or do a “free time” activity (can be doing nothing). Have a cut-off time in the evening and stick to it (maybe plan for 30min of sth fun in advance which you will get as a reward). Switch off your notifications (for example between 7pm and 9am). Who isn’t listed as an emergency contact doesn’t get to have “emergencies” in that time window (related to the “leave one in the bar” tip). Don’t “carry guilt” over to this off-time or the next day (“This should have gotten finished already yesterday”). Tomorrow is a new day and guilt-tripping yourself won’t help anybody. If anything, it will cause you to procrastinate because you’re putting unnecessary pressure on yourself and thus, find yourself dreading to do the work.
- Protect the asset I (sleep enough). Lots of people think they don’t need 8 hours of sleep but studies show that actually, very few people truly thrive on less than 7 hours of sleep. Make sleep a priority. You’ll be sharper and make better decisions. Prioritizing will be easier. You’ll easily make back the “time lost” sleeping by increased efficiency. Was called “protect the asset” in Greg McKeown, Essentialism. Edit 2022-06: It’s hard to tell where the 8 hour idea comes from but apparently, the ideal number is actually 7. Continuously sleeping between 8-10h can actually be a sign of (hidden) illness. I updated the number in the text above.
- Protect the asset II (Eat well, protect your health and exercise daily). You know you should. You can only get things done while your body isn’t broken. Don’t let it get that far. I tend to eat relatively healthy and exercise more than most people but I still developed back issues due to sitting with bad posture during the pandemic/ in the home office. Waited way too long to get my back properly fixed due to having to finish the thesis and then being away from home on fellowship travel. Was in such bad chronic pain for two years now (it’s still coming back in high-stress moments, as per 2022-06) that I honestly questioned whether getting my PhD was worth losing my health in such a relatively permanent (or at least long-term) way at some point. I’m mostly ok now but in bad moments, even exercise, CBD or 2h of stretching don’t help at all. This may sound dramatic but it’s truly how I feel after a week of doing everything to make the pain better and nothing helps. I just wanted to share this because it had never as much as crossed my mind while I was doing the damage. So don’t gamble your health – even a big life goal may not be truly worth that! You want to be able to enjoy your success when you finally reach your goal. According to Brendon Burchard, nobody reaches lasting success (he calls it consistent high performance) when they compromise on essential aspects of life (such as health or relationships) in favour of work in the long term. Set yourself the challenge to become as healthy as you can (as seen in Steve Pavlina’s “30 day trials” / 30 Days to Success) but don’t make it a competition. We don’t want you developing orthorexia. Apparently you should have at the very least 20-45min of getting your heartrate pumping every day. Or at least go for a walk.
- Take real breaks and do a social media / screen fast. Pretty self-explanatory. Studies show that being on your phone keeps your brain so busy that it isn’t actually a suitable “break” activity. See also Digital Minimalism. Apparently, social comparison is the number one factor making us unhappy (see the Science of Well-Being MOOC).
- Separate work and life spaces. If possible in any way, don’t work where you live and the other way around. Even if that just means installing a mini wall-hanging desk in your living room where you only sit down to work. It’s the exclusive association of this space with work or some sort of “starting work” ritual that counts. Some people even suggest different spaces for deep and administrative work. You might want to try that, too, if possible. I’m not sure the latter one is working for me although this separation is also recommened in Cal Newport’s A World Without Email.
- Make it an event and “romanticize your life”. It has been really popular to “romanitcize your life” to make it more instagrammable and to “become that girl” lately. It’s an overall problematic idea which idealizes hustle culture (and exploiting yourself for capitalism) but trying to put some effort into “romanitcizing your life” – not for Instagram but for yourself – can be a nice exercise in mindfulness and gratitude (and we all need some more of that in our lives!). It could also be a way of getting out of a rut or rewarding yourself for particularly daunting things: Do some work in a café, for example, get some reading done or answer some emails. I like it every once in a while. I don’t do it enough but should do it more often. It’s both rewarding and makes me feel good while actually helping to get work done. The aforementioned Science of Well-Being MOOC also says that investing in experiences can make you happier whereas investing in material things is basically pointless in terms of making you feel good because we get used to new things so quickly. So if you want to spend money on enjoying your life more, paying for a nice experience at a café can actually pay off. More than buying new highlight markers. Although I feel that the happiness habituation doesn’t occur for me when it comes to pastel highlighters 😉
- Exile yourself. This might not be possible for you but many creative people of the past have “exiled themselves” in some way to make a dent on a major project, such as locking themselves up naked in a room until they got some writing done (Victor Hugo actually did this but it’s probably not for everybody) or, a little less extreme, gone to a hotel or a cabin to write. This is used mostly for writing but also for conceptual thinking or maybe learning a new skill (think Tim Ferriss’ “mini retirements” where he travels somewhere for 1-3 months and learns one skill and one language there). I actually like to go to a vacation appartment far away for the Christmas holidays to relax but also to get some writing done. Works like a charm and feels like a luxury because it kind of is. But then again, you can get this experience for relatively cheap (like going to a place with tons of summer tourism which is mostly closed down on Christmas: not a lot of opportunities for consumption or distraction and cheap living) – if you can get the time off to do it.
- Write down your worries in some place so you can review them after two months. Most of the time, you will realize that none of them matter anymore. Most of them didn’t even happen. Especially fears like “I’m two months late on XY” really won’t matter next year, so practice celebrating your successes and don’t be too hard on yourself. You are more than entitled to taking some time off to recharge.
So that’s it for today. Let me know if you enjoy those productivity themed posts.
Bye for now!
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