The 8 habits of highly productive people (Part 1)

Celestine Chua — №10 with Seth Godin

From the Editor: This is a great article by Celestine and because it’s a long and fantastic piece of advice we decided to split it into two parts - the first part is here and the second one will be published in the next (#11) issue of the Productive! Magazine.

What makes a productive person? Is it the ability to robotically churn out work, hour after hour? Is it the amount of discipline one has? Is it the speed at which one works?

Before we can discuss what makes a productive person, we should first define what productivity is. The common notion of productivity is the ability to churn out a lot of work in a short span of time. True, but not complete. In my opinion true productivity is the ability to create a lot of high impact work in a short span of time. This is the kind of productivity we should concern ourselves with, not other kinds of productivity which are more empty / busy work that create no impact in the long term.

For example, let’s say Peter types very fast and can reply to 1000 emails a day. That doesn’t make him/her productive, because there’s little output (product) to speak of (unless the emails contribute to tangible, high impact outcomes). However, if John completes just one task in a day that has more impact than the 1000 emails put together, then he’s more productive than Peter is.

I think productivity is really how you manage yourself, and the habits you practice. By selectively practicing certain habits over others, you can get a lot more output for your time. Here, I’ll share with you my top 8 habits in productivity. Practice them and compare how your productivity changes afterwards :D.

Habit 1: Ruthlessly cut away the unimportant (and focus on the important)

The first thing is to slice and dice everything that’s unimportant. Whenever I go to my work desk, I write down a list of things to do for the day. I then evaluate which are the most important things out of the list, first circling them, then ranking the items. After which I’ll challenge these items to see if they’re the best use of my time. What impact does doing these make? Can I be doing more high value tasks? Doing so helps me ensure I’m working on the absolute most important things for the day. Then, for the non-important ones, I either push them to a later date or find a way to take them off the list. (Learning how to say no to others is very important here.)

It’s my favorite daily self-management tool. For everything you’re doing now, ask yourself, how important is this? Does this bring you dramatically closer to your dreams? Does this create any real impact in your life in the long-term? Is it the absolute best way to spend your time or can you be doing more high value tasks? If not, perhaps it’s time to ditch it. No point doing something unimportant! Say you’re handling a project that makes no difference to your business after it’s completed. It wouldn’t matter whether you take 1 hour, 3 hours, 1 week. or never — to do it! It would still make no difference!

Going by the questions I raised above, my most important tasks are the ones that bring me closest to my dreams when I do them. For example, working on my blog allows me to reach out to more people out there, which lets me achieve my end vision of enabling others to achieve their highest potential and live their best life. While other tasks help me progress in my goals too, they’re not as effective as working on my blog.

It doesn’t end with correctly identifying the high value tasks. Often times, we’ll be imbued with a stream of random, miscellaneous requests throughout the day. I used to give immediate attention to these things. Say random request # 1 comes in and I’ll do it immediately since it takes just 5—10 minutes, max. This is the same for random request # 2, #3…. all the way to #20. After a while, I realized these things take a lot of my time and I don’t even get any meaningful result out of them. Not only that, I never finish my high value tasks. I may think I’m being very productive when I finish the random things, but truth is it’s just fake productivity.

So nowadays, I use a separate “will-do” list for these urgent tasks. I dump all the incoming tasks here and work on my 20% tasks. At the end of the day, I allocate a time slot to clear these tasks. I batch the similar urgent tasks, then clear them at one go. Turns out I’m always able to get them cleared in an hour or less, compared to the few hours I’d have taken if I attended to them in the day.

Habit 2: Allocate breaks strategically

I don’t think being productive requires you to work non-stop like a robot. On the contrary, it’s when you try to do that that you become less productive. While the number of hours spent on work increases and the amount of work accomplished seems marginally higher, the work done per unit of time is lower than your average. Not only that, the work done per extra unit of time actually decreases.

If you think the above sounds confusing, not to worry! Here’s a simple example to illustrate my point. Say you want to write a book. You can usually type 1,000 words in an hour working on your book. This goes well for the first 2 hours, and you clock 1,000 words per hour. However, at the third hour, you feel tired, and you type 500 words in the 3rd hour instead. That’s -500 words less than your usual output! This is known as the Law of Diminishing Returns in economics.

Rest is important. No matter how much you want to work, there are areas of your life that it can’t fulfill: such as love, family, and health. That’s why our life wheel is made up of different segments, versus just one big segment. Each segment is distinct and unreplaceable by others. By “rest”, I’m referring to any segment of your life that’s outside of Business/Career/Studies. Taking time off charges your batteries so you can sprint forward when you return to it.

Earlier this year, I did an experiment. I went for a period where I continuously worked without stopping (save for necessary breaks like sleeping, eating, etc). I also went for a separate period where I would work, then space in break times in between work, such as catching up on emails, exercising, walking around the house, reading books, going for a walk, catching up with friends, a short nap, and so on. What I found was this:

Output decreases over time when there are no breaks (despite reaching the point of diminishing returns).

What this means is when I work non-stop without any breaks, my productivity keeps slipping until it’s near zero. However, when I take breaks, they help me start on a high note when I get back. Even though there are “down-times” away during the breaks, the high output more than makes up for that. Hence, by strategically placing my break times, I’m able to maximize my output. Rest, hence, does not prevent me from getting more done — it enables me to get more done. More time spent on work does not necessarily lead to more work done, but applying the above strategy AND combining it with increased time spent on work will maximize your output.

If you’re self-employed or on a flexible work schedule, you can put this into practice easily. Even if you’re in a 9-5 job, you can still do it all the time. Whenever you feel unproductive, throw in a quick break. Walk away from the desk, get a drink from the pantry, go for a toilet break, talk to a colleague about work. You’ll be more perked up when you return.

Habit 3: Remove productivity pit-stops (i.e. distractions)

Productivity pit-stops are things that limit your productivity. They can be the music you listen to when you work, your slow computer, unwanted phone calls, alerts from your inbox on incoming mail, the Internet, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, etcetera. These things trap you and prevent you from getting things done.

What should you do then? Well, remove these pit-stops! Or go to a place where they are no longer an issue. For example, a big productivity pit-stop for me is the Internet. When I write my articles while online, I have the tendency to click to other sites. I’d check my email, after which I become distracted by the new emails. The emails would lead to follow-up work and replies, which takes time. By the time I’m done, a good 15—20 minutes has passed. Then within minutes of working, the same cycle repeats. So instead, when I’m writing, I unplug the LAN cable from my laptop and move my laptop to my bed (which is what I’m doing now as I’m writing this article). It’s a lot faster!

Go about your daily routine and observe when your output slows down. What’s distracting you? How can you remove it? Experiment and try working in different places. Adjust your environment. Make tweaks here and there. The more productivity pit-stops you find and remove, the more productive you’ll be.

Habit 4: Tap into your inspiration

I can’t stress how important this is to maximizing your output. No matter what field you’re in, your inspiration is the key to your output. For example, an inspired programmer creates programs that change people’s lives for the better. An inspired structural engineer designs effective building structures. An inspired marketer creates breakthrough marketing plans that touches people’s hearts. An inspired writer writes continuously. A highly inspired musician writes one song after another.

I fully grasped the impact of inspiration when I started my business and was in charge of my full schedule. I realized during the times when I’m inspired, work is simply effortless. Take writing as an example. The words will flow and I don’t even need to process them. They get transferred as thoughts in my mind straight to the keyboard. On the other hand, when I’m uninspired, nothing comes out. It’s like when opening a tap and there’s no water, save for 1—2 drops.

What do you do then? Do you just idle, waiting for inspiration to strike before you do any work? That’s allocating your control to your external world, which really isn’t what this article is about. I often hear people say they’re not planning to write because they’re not inspired. I think it’s not about waiting for inspiration to strike but about learning to channel into your inspiration.

How do you do that? It’s simple. Think about what inspires you in life. Is it helping others grow? Connecting with people? Being recognized for your work? Working with those in poverty? Helping the unfortunate? Being #1 in your field? How can you achieve these things? Find out your motivators, then use them to drive you. My biggest inspiration is to see others achieving their highest potential and living their best lives. If there is ever anything blocking them, I’ll feel all ready to rip it away. I use this as the main driver for everything I create. When I’m writing a blog entry, I’ll start by thinking about an area people are facing blockages, then I channel into that energy. 30DLBL was created because I noticed while many people pursue self-help, not many know how to translate what they read into practice. I got inspired to create a personal development program which would encapsulate my best strategies on how to live our best life. This program would consist of a series of tasks, at a manageable pace of one task a day, which would both trigger immediate action and create tangible results.

Habits 5, 6, 7 and 8 will be coming in Productive! Magazine issue №11 :-)

Photo: Flickr / Aaron Webb CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Celestine chua

Celestine Chua

Celestine Chua is founder of Personal Excellence - one of the world’s top communities for people passionate about achieving excellence in life. This is her passion and her life. Born in Singapore, she’s now traveling the world and meeting up with readers.

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