Productivity 101 - Strategies, Techniques, and How To Measure It

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Let’s get real for a second. Any mention of “productivity” today is met with mixed reactions — and for good reason. It’s been written about ad nauseum and heralded as the metric worth measuring ourselves by. As a result, the idea of “being productive” has taken on a somewhat warped meaning depending on who you talk to.

But the conversation about productivity isn’t over.

This guide is designed to butter-knife through the noise. By the end of it, you’ll have a much clearer and more actionable approach to productivity that works for you and the needs of your work day.

It always helps to start with a clear definition.

What is productivity?

Productivity has been defined in many ways, but at its core, it’s about getting things done efficiently and effectively. It’s about using your unique combination of resources in the best possible way to achieve the desired result.

There are a lot of different factors that can affect your productivity, from how well organized you are, your health and lifestyle, and even your unconscious biases. But the most important components of consistently being productive break down into two building blocks worth exploring:

  1. Understanding the nature of your work (what inputs lead to what outputs?)
  2. Understanding yourself (what motivates you to stay focused and follow through on the most important tasks?)

It’s only when you’re armed with a good understanding of both categories that you can take actionable steps to change your approach — as well as your internalized beliefs —  to what productivity is and what’s possible for you.

Let’s dive deeper.

Understanding the nature of your work

Understanding what gets you the best outcomes — “the most bang for your buck” — requires you to take a step back and get an overview of every task that comes together to make up your work. This is where it’s helpful to start making a distinction between maker tasks and manager tasks as the first step.

Making vs. managing

Today, one of the most important realizations to make about productivity is the need to spend less time on the maintenance of work and more time on the work itself. In other words, developing a bias toward prioritizing your most valuable work is critical to be productive. In the hustle and bustle of the day though, it’s easy to forget.

In 2009, investor Paul Graham devised the terms “maker’s schedule and manager’s schedule.” According to Graham, they’re meant to create a clear division between two distinct work modes.

A manager’s schedule runs on short intervals of time filled with whatever the day brings — meetings, more meetings, emails, and anything else that needs your attention. Alternatively, a maker’s schedule runs on much longer intervals — long enough to get deep work done daily.

Graham explains, “Most powerful people are on the manager's schedule. It's the schedule of command. But there's another way of using time that's common among people who make things, like programmers and writers. They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You can't write or program well in units of an hour. That's barely enough time to get started.”

You don’t have to be a powerful CEO to apply the same principles to your own day. In the same way, understanding the nature of your work helps you reorganize your day to fit either a maker’s schedule or a manager’s setup. Ask yourself: Is your job about managing others, doing creative work, or maybe a little bit of both?

Understanding whether your tasks qualify as “maker” or “manager” helps you frame your schedule much better. For example, prioritizing your maker hours and leaving the management tasks for the second half of the day can be an incredible way to level up your productivity without having to do more.

Why? Because it ensures you’re making the most of your resources — time, energy, willpower — to achieve your most critical tasks for the day. Once you’ve digested what the nature of your daily work is, uncovering the value of your most important tasks is the next step in understanding the nature of your work.

Learning to prioritize tasks based on value

The concept of prioritizing the tasks on your list based on value is presented in Gary Keller’s classic The ONE Thing. In this book, Keller goes on to explain the concept of prioritizing “the one thing.” According to Keller, here’s what you should ask yourself the next time you’re met with a long list of tasks that need doing —

“What’s the ONE Thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”

The question might seem extreme in nature. Yet when you zoom out, it’s designed to help you find the most valuable task worth prioritizing so that everything else that comes after it can be done with more ease. Plus, if you happen to drop the ball with any of the subsequent tasks, you know you at least finished the most important task — the one that bears the most value even if you don’t get to those emails on time.

Note that understanding the value of each task also debunks the idea that you need to be an absolute expert at time management. Rather, what you need to be an expert at is task management based on value before adding time management into the equation.

Understanding yourself

Your energy levels. Your mood. And the million and one variables that are simultaneously influencing your day-to-day life all factor into how productive you’re able to be any day of the week. Fair enough. But this doesn’t mean you can’t use things like motivation psychology to understand yourself better.

Working with your own psychology

As humans, we tend to pursue pleasure and avoid pain — sometimes at all costs. While this can be a slippery slope depending on what’s at play, it can be a concept to harness where productivity is concerned. How? With the use of reinforcement theory.

According to psychologist B.F. Skinner, reinforcement theory is the idea that consequences shape our behavior. The more a behavior is met with a positive consequence the more that behavior is repeated. Do this enough over a period of time, and sticking to higher value habits that lead to more productive sessions gets easier.

It isn’t uncommon for leaders in the workplace to be introduced to B.F. Skinner’s theory as a framework for keeping their employees motivated and engaged. In the same way, leadership can use it to figure out what drives their employees, it’s possible to use it on an individual level to figure yourself out.

What habits and routines can you reinforce with a positive consequence? While this might seem like a basic approach to productivity, doing it on a long enough timeline can help you cement the habits — like sticking to a maker’s schedule or monotasking instead of multitasking — that’ll make more productive days a reality.

Focusing over multitasking

All of us have a finite amount of mental bandwidth and it’s one of the reasons why constantly attempting to multitask can be so taxing. When you multitask, you’re prone to making more mistakes, which then leads to spending additional time revising them.

Consider that multi-tasking also involves decision-making. Studies suggest that too much decision-making in a day works against you. After making so many different larger and smaller decisions throughout the day, we experience what’s called decision fatigue.

When this happens, we get passive about each subsequent decision we make, have a much lower ability to make trade-offs accurately, our capacity to regulate our behavior lowers, and we’re more prone to making impulsive choices.

In other words, all the decision-making involved when we’re trying to multitask only fatigues us. The point? Multitasking is hurting your productivity more than you realize. Rather than doing everything and nothing at the same time, which is ultimately what multitasking is, aim to monotask.

Once you’ve figured out what your most valuable tasks for the day are, focus on one of them at a time. Also:

  • Get rid of distractions
  • Create an environment that’s conducive to deep work (no sudden alarms, undue noise, or random notifications)
  • Reward yourself once the task is finished as a way to use “small wins” to your advantage

Reframing how you think about time

Our experience of time is something that’s not talked about enough in productivity circles. It affects our overall satisfaction with how productive we think we’re being as well as our levels of motivation, which are a big part of the puzzle in staying consistently productive.

Did you know that time isn’t directly perceived? Rather, time is actually a construct of how your brain processes several subjective data points — like your memories, moods, emotions, and personality traits. Your time perception also depends on how short or long you perceive the intervals of time between events to be.

How you experience one hour of work might not be how your coworker experiences it doing the same task. Your perception of time inevitably leads to either negative or positive judgments about how productive you’re being that may or may not be completely accurate.

As you dive into “maker” work or “manager” work, consider being aware of how you experience that time. The chances that one hour of work compared to another hour of work may seem more productive despite getting the same amount done are high.

This is where you’ll want to zoom out, look at the big picture, and give yourself some grace. Productivity, after all, is about progress, not perfect execution.

Top productivity strategies

We’d be remiss not to include some of the best — even if some are commonly known — productivity strategies you can add to your personal toolbox.

Pomodoro your biggest tasks

One popular productivity strategy is the Pomodoro Technique. This involves working in short bursts of 25 minutes, followed by a 5-minute break. After 4 pomodoros (or 2 hours), you take a longer break of 20-30 minutes. Use a free Pomodoro tool to help you stay on track.

Use the Eisenhower Matrix

Another popular strategy is the Eisenhower Matrix. This helps you prioritize your tasks by urgency and importance. Urgent and important tasks are done first, followed by important but not urgent tasks, then non-urgent but important tasks, and finally non-urgent and unimportant tasks.

Image: Eisenhower.me

Centralize your work within one simple productivity tool (Sunsama)

There are also a lot of great productivity apps out there that can help you stay on track and get things done. The problem is many of them add more busy work to your plate instead of value.

A simple tool like Sunsama, for example, is built to help you form consistent habits that help you stay away from burnout while ensuring no tasks fall through the cracks.

Unlike other productivity tools, Sunsama focuses on the tasks in front of you — the daily tasks. Its dashboard is designed for calm, focus, and an uncluttered approach to your work day.

Adopt deep work as a part of your daily schedule

Deep work, a term coined by Cal Newport in the book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, poses the simple idea of working for long stretches of time sans distractions like social media notifications and phone notifications. As you figure out your maker vs. manager schedule, consider adopting a deep work style for your designated focus time.

Considering the average working professional interrupts themselves around 44% of the time and needs an average of half an hour to refocus, developing a habit of setting up an uninterrupted time for deep work is non-negotiable.

Focus on energy management rather than time management

Manage your energy not your time is a good approach to a heavily filled schedule. Sure, all of us and Beyonce have 24 hours in the day. But not all of us have personal assistants to help us stretch and maximize our time.

This is where managing your energy — a resource that’s more finite and less constant than time — rings true. The idea is simple.

Delegate what you can, automate the rest

In the 21st century, software is one of the best things that’s happened to productivity. Thanks to it, a lot of repetitive tasks can be automated. For example, a daily planner like Sunsama helps you automate time to reflect.

At a designated time at the end of your work day, Sunsama automatically prompts you to reflect and write a brief list of what you got done for the day, how you’re feeling, and what you’re looking forward to. This eliminates the need to do the extra mental work to remember to do this and make it a habit.

Don't be afraid to change up your routine if something isn't working – sometimes all it takes is a small tweak with the help of automation to make a big difference in your productivity levels without having to “do more.”

When overwhelmed, use the rule of three

Aristotle first made the observation that people find it easier to remember three things. The “rule of three” transcends more than just memory. When you hit those days of overwhelm, remember the “rule of three.” Start a list from scratch of the three most important things you can get done for the day that’ll move you forward. It’s a way to harness clarity and take action.

Bringing it all together

This guide touched on some of the most important principles within the three main components of productivity: Knowing the value of your tasks, learning to self-manage, and a look at some actionable productivity strategies that work.

However, it’s often hard to know where to start if you’re trying to change your approach to productivity at a foundational level. If you want to start with a simple task to get going, consider onboarding Sunsama as part of your efforts.

As a daily planner, it’s simple. It keeps you in check. And it centralizes all your tasks — Slack, Trello, Gmail, ClickUp, Sunsama, and more — in one clean dashboard.

Try Sunsama here.

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