6 Things The Most Productive People Do Every Day
Before we commence with the festivities, I wanted to thank everyone for helping my first book become a Wall Street Journal bestseller. To check it out, click here.
In case you are just recently visiting Earth, well, things have changed slightly since 2019. (For the record, I checked and 2020 has a “no refund” policy.)
Yes, of course, I’m talking about working from home. In the span of roughly two weeks in March, the number of people in the US who had ever worked from home doubled.
From The New Corner Office:
Gallup polls found that, as of March 13–15, 2020, only 31 percent of U.S. workers had ever worked remotely; by March 30—April 2, 2020, this had doubled to 62 percent.
And Gallup found 59% of those people wanted to keep doing it post-pandemic. It definitely has benefits. Prior research has shown we’re 11-20% more productive on creative tasks while at home. Cool, huh?
But that same study also found that we’re up to 10% less productive at home while working on uncreative tasks. Most work? Decidedly uncreative. Uh-oh.
I don’t think I need to explain how working from home during a pandemic might reduce productivity even further. As many of us have realized, it can lead to some deeply cringe-y changes in behavior and a lack of showering that culminate in a dignity-free lifestyle. (I really hate when I put on 20 pounds for a role and realize I’m not a movie star.) Spend enough time not leaving the house and you’ll see more terrifying things than a private-mode browser window. And let’s not forget about the emotional challenges all this has created, like increases in depression and anxiety. We went from normal life to lockdown so fast we’re like divers with the bends.
All of this has made it very, very hard to get things done. We’re eight months in. To a degree we’ve adjusted and developed new routines but in many ways we’re kind of just on standby, acting like life is going to revert back to 2019 any day now. Umm, we’ll find a better solution to getting things done, err, uh, soon. (Ah, yes, “soon” that magical, chronological purgatory where so many improvements are indefinitely detained.)
Unfortunately, we may be living in the Epidemiological Land of Misfit Toys but we still need to get things done. And not soon. Now. Sorry to sound so serious and preachy, posting my thoughts to the digital door like some 21st century Martin Luther but if you want 2021 to be cool, fun and cuter than a puppy yawn then we need to find a better way to work.
Luckily, it’s easier than you think. This doesn’t have to be a productivity apocalypse. This can actually be an opportunity. Things are going to go back to almost-kinda-semi-normal eventually and when that happens, we can be ahead of the curve instead of behind it, if we’re smart.
So how do we do a productivity reboot? Well, here is my most pro of protips:
Congrats, you are no longer an employee. You are now the CEO of “You, Inc.”
We’ve all spent a lot of time in the past complaining that we don’t have enough freedom and control. Guess what? You got it. And we’re gonna handle it like a boss. We’re going to create a new system to address all the things that are now missing because we lack the structure of the office. And it’s going to be even better because it’s going to be customized for you.
For all those who aren’t working from home and feel like this doesn’t apply to them, well… you’re wrong. You may not really be CEO of a business but you are CEO of your life. Always have been and always will be. The lessons we’ll be learning here are valuable even if you don’t work from home, heck, even if you’re not working at all. Building a custom productivity system can benefit everyone because we all need to get stuff done. This is a life skill, and one that will be useful even after the End of the World has ended.
Ready to be a CEO? Let’s get to it…
1) Be Proactive, Not Reactive. Judge Results, Not Hours.
Most of the time at the office you’re reacting. Following. But working at home, you don’t get credit for just showing up and looking busy. You can’t coast and run down the clock. People only see what you’ve accomplished.
Merely “reacting” is not how the most productive people work. They know that, in the end, nobody pays you for your time, they pay you to get things done. Time is just a metric and a lousy one at that. But you’re not an employee anymore. You’re a CEO. You need to proactively make things happen. You have to look at tasks, not time and measure results, not hours.
Some people are gonna say, “Oh, but I’m getting things done! I’m responding to these emails!”
No, Straw Man, responding to email doesn’t count. Look, I get a lot of email too (much of it informing me that hot single moms are available to chat right now) but responding to it doesn’t create these blog posts.
Now that working from home has given you more flexibility, use it to focus on what is important. Do the things that move the needle. Most of us get 80% of results from 20% of the work we do. So focus on that 20%. What really creates progress vs treading water?
Do top performers work more or less? Actually, it’s a trick question: they do more…of less.
Once they had focused on a few priorities, they obsessed over those tasks to produce quality work. That extreme dedication to their priorities created extraordinary results. Top performers did less and more: less volume of activities, more concentrated effort.
And Straw Man replies, “But I do have busywork I need to finish! If I just focus on the big things I won’t get to the bottom of my to-do list!” And that is 100% true…
Except you never get to the bottom of your to-do list anyway, so make sure it’s the busywork that gets put off.
And this applies to life outside of your career as well. People talk about “spending more time with their family” but thinking in terms of hours is silly. It’s about what you do. I’ll take half the time in meaningful, precious moments vs. twice as much time staring at our phones together.
(To learn more about how you can lead a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)
Okay, so in the productivity war you’re now focusing on nukes, not bullets. That’s awesome. But what does it take to make those decisions properly when you’re on your own?
2) “Know Thyself” Is More Important Than Ever
You have more freedom now than ever — so we need to get rid of that immediately. A lot of the context, systems, and habits that used to unconsciously contain and direct your behavior are now gone. So we need to replace them with new processes, ones better tailored to you.
When are you at your best? Just like all tasks aren’t created equal, all hours aren’t created equal either. And now that your time is more in your hands than ever, and you know you want to focus on important stuff, you need to give those critical tasks your best hours when you have the most energy and brainpower.
Studies show that 2.5 to 4 hours after waking is when most people’s brains are sharpest. But that’s only true in general. When are your “Magic Hours”? Are you a morning person? A night owl? Great, protect those hours and use them for what matters. You want to leverage knowledge about yourself to implement a new strategy.
And this isn’t just true for when you work, it’s true for how you work. More productive after a nap? Cool. That’s now an option. Give active consideration to what structures are missing now that the office is gone, what you need to do to replace them, and how they could be even better. Watch yourself work, take notes, find patterns and alter your schedule accordingly.
And knowing what works worst for you is critical too. You now have a multitude of ways to procrastinate that weren’t an option before. Gotta head those off and outsmart yourself. Being left alone with a big TV and nobody looking over your shoulder may be the equivalent of putting a chocoholic in a Hershey’s factory. No good shall come of this.
Even your personal life has structure and you have more control over it than you think and certainly more than you exercise. Consciously and deliberately decide what that structure will be or it will be decided for you. (I think you’ll like the results of the former better.)
(To learn how to stop being lazy and get more done, click here.)
You’re building that storehouse of personal insights and shortcuts. Great. But how do we best implement them?
3) Create Your New Tailored CEO System
Systems beat goals. People who have a goal to lose 10 pounds regain the weight while people who have a system of eating right and exercising every day sustain the weight loss. To succeed over the long haul, you want “process goals” not “outcome goals.”
Your process goals will be your daily activities, so put them in your calendar. Think about what moves the needle, know when you’re at your best, and then schedule everything accordingly.
Yes, schedule everything. You don’t need another person to have an appointment on your calendar. We typically use our calendars backwards, to schedule distractions like meetings vs. what matters like cranking on critical work. A schedule is a to-do list that takes time into consideration. That’s how you know if you actually have the hours for all that stuff and it forces you to prioritize.
This also allows you to actually be done for the day, a problem many of us run into when working from home. All that new freedom allows work and life to blur into a very thin soup of productivity and leisure where we never get much done but never fully relax, either.
You can’t rely on unconscious cues from the office around you to tell you it’s time to quit, so create an “ending ritual” for yourself that emotionally helps you wind down and transition to true downtime. Shut down the computer, organize tomorrow’s process goals into tomorrow’s magic hours on the calendar, or make a cup of tea. Whatever tells your brain, “My work is done for the day.”
Think this just applies to work? Nope. What do counselors tell struggling couples? Have a “date night.” Put your relationship on the calendar so it actually happens. And what does the research say? Yes, we’re happier when we plan our leisure time. Sound depressing? I don’t see it that way. I think planning shows that something really matters to you.
(To learn the most fun way to make your life awesome during the pandemic, click here.)
You’ve got priorities, magic hours, and a new schedule. Great. But subconsciously you are very much affected by the concrete world around you. Gotta adjust that as well…
4) Manage Your Environment
Bars are loud and energetic to unconsciously let you know it’s time to have fun. We need the reverse. The office used to trigger the mindset that “it’s time to get things done.” We need to engineer the same effect at home.
Have a spot at home where you’re usually productive? Go there. How about a place where you always screw around and waste time? Avoid it. You want to recreate the boundaries of the office in a new and improved way. You may not have a home office but you do now. Create one even if it involves working in a refrigerator box like you’re seven-years-old.
And this isn’t just true for locations. Separate computers, separate browsers, anything you can use and customize to trigger the mindset of “time to get stuff done” vs. “fun time” will help.
But you don’t just want to recreate the office, you want to make it better. Leverage that personal knowledge. What helps you work best? What environmental elements of the office are effective and what’s missing? You’re the CEO. Make an executive decision about whether this new company works better with music on in the background or not.
And then, after you’re done optimizing your zone of productivity, look at the rest of the house and do the opposite. How can you structure the other areas of your life for more relaxation? For a feeling of comfort and togetherness? Build the contrast. Think of preschool: this section of the room is for messy painting, this is where we do show-and-tell, and this area is for nap time. Part of your home is optimized for work – and another is designated for leisure.
(To learn the two-word morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)
This is all fine and dandy but so far this has been all about you and we do need to work with other people. What’s the best way to overcome the obstacles we face in this weird time where we all need to come together while getting away from each other?
5) Plan Communication And Feedback
I live alone so in darker moments my pandemic life feels like a supervillain origin story. This is not good. I have to be proactive about connecting with people if I want it to happen. And you aren’t going to randomly run into anyone at the water cooler anymore. Random is now in short supply because you might as well be on Moon Base #7.
If you don’t already have regular check-ins planned with the boss, do that. And have a list of all the awesome things you’ve accomplished ready to discuss because it’s even harder for them to know what you’re up to. Ask about appropriate response times now that things have changed. You’ve probably done some of this by now but think deliberately if there’s a way to make it better, to make it a part of your new system. The old defaults are gone and some new ones are being created, but probably in an organic and less-than-optimal fashion.
The other issue is feedback. A lot of things that might get mumbled to you in person will never be put in an email. Gotta be proactive here. Ask for feedback on how you’re doing and where things are at. People are stressed, things are weird and you’re not just going to be able to intuit what’s going on from those around you.
And with delicious irony let me add that now all serendipity must be planned. Bouncing ideas off people, casual networking, and other less formal activities take a serious hit when you work from home, but their absence will create negatives over time.
Again, this isn’t just work-from-home advice, this is life advice. Maintaining all relationships must be proactive and very few of us have a formal system or schedule for it. In the short run, the virus is the problem but in the long run the social and emotional consequences of this pandemic may be just as severe. Be conscious of your connections to others and conscientious about maintaining them. They’re no less a part of your overall health than eating right. Plenty of people at the office are annoying but without the little positives of casual social interaction your mind can become a nonstop Madeleine cake of Proustian horrors.
(To learn more about how to make friends as an adult, click here.)
And now we have one of the biggest challenges to conquer, something even more hellish than being on a group text: how do you stay motivated at home?
6) Motivation Is Mood Management
Sometimes I’m sitting here writing with all the enthusiasm of a photocopier. Finishing things feels more like a kidney stone than a milestone. And the research shows that so much of motivation is about mood. How you feel. When we’re positive, we’re not only more productive, we’re more effective.
From The Happiness Advantage:
…doctors put in a positive mood before making a diagnosis show almost three times more intelligence and creativity than doctors in a neutral state, and they make accurate diagnoses 19 percent faster. Optimistic salespeople outsell their pessimistic counterparts by 56 percent. Students primed to feel happy before taking math achievement tests far outperform their neutral peers. It turns out that our brains are literally hardwired to perform at their best not when they are negative or even neutral, but when they are positive.
And why do we procrastinate? That, too, is all about how you feel. Studies show you procrastinate most when you’re in a bad mood and think you can improve it with something fun.
So what’s the most motivating thing of all? The answer goes right back to our focus on the tasks that are most important. Studies by Harvard professor Teresa Amabile show that nothing is more motivating than making progress in meaningful work.
How do you leverage this for your new CEO-of-the-couch system? Well, you probably have a “to-do” list, but I’ll bet you don’t have a “did-it” list. Josh Kaufman, bestselling author of The Personal MBA, says his “did-it” list is a critical tool. Instead of spending the whole day looking at a depressing list of things not yet done, he makes sure to also keep a growing inventory of all the awesome stuff he’s accomplished that day.
Again, work from home lessons are life lessons. Josh’s “did-it” reminds your emotional brain that you’re doing great so it makes sense to keep going. And a very powerful parallel in your personal life is a gratitude list. It’s the most proven way to boost happiness, merely writing down three good things that happened each day before you go to bed at night.
Being thankful and appreciating the good moments is something that works everywhere. When we make it a part of our personal CEO system it makes lives better at home whether we’re working or spending time with those we love.
(To learn the 4 harsh truths that will make you a better person, click here.)
Alright, we’ve covered a lot. (Consider all of the above your “did-it” list for the day.) Let’s round everything up and see just how much taking the CEO perspective can help improve our lives even when this very weird time has passed…
Here are six things the most productive people do every day:
- Be Proactive, Not Reactive. Judge Results, Not Hours: With anything truly important in life you don’t shrug and take the attitude of, “Well, I tried.” If you merely “tried” to eat, you’d have starved to death long ago. It’s about results.
- “Know thyself” is more important than ever: Working from home, that awful co-worker is not your greatest enemy. You are your greatest enemy. Know yourself and outsmart yourself.
- Create your new tailored CEO system: To paraphrase Steve Martin, “It’s easy to be great. It’s hard to be consistent.” Outcome goals don’t last. Process goals do.
- Manage your environment: Why do you eat more at a buffet than at a normal restaurant? Environment matters. Luckily, it’s now under your control. Customize it for results.
- Plan communication and feedback: Casual conversations are no longer casual and just because they’re informal doesn’t mean they’re unimportant. Serendipity must be planned.
- Motivation Is Mood Management: When you’re happy, things are easy. So instead of trying to make hard things easy, make yourself happy.
Productivity now is harder for all of us. I have done fewer posts this year than in any of the eleven years I have been writing this blog. Yeah, I have other projects cooking but still, this pains me. I feel I have let myself down and that I’ve let you down. (At times I feel like if all the village idiots from all the world’s villages got together and created their own village, I would be the village idiot in that village.)
But I’m too hard on myself. This is some summer-movie-level disaster stuff we’re living through. And it’s not even over yet. We’re still a herd-and-a-half away from herd immunity. It is utterly impossible for any one of us to change the pandemic but sometimes that still seems easier than changing yourself.
But for the vast majority of us, the pandemic will not be the end. Our lives will go on. And we can change. We can improve. And the things we do now will determine how much better our post-pandemic lives will be. I am reminded of what Haruki Murakami wrote in “Kafka on the Shore”:
And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.
When the COVID-19 storm is over, you won’t be the same person. And neither will I. But the good news is, if we keep getting up when we stumble, we will come out better than we were before.
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