No one wants to procrastinate. No one wants to feel stressed. No one wants to face distractions every day.
Yet we do. Myself included.
But what about the most successful people in the world? How do they stay sane? Surely, they must face distractions every day. What are the habits that keep them focused? That's the exact question we set out to discover.
The Habits of Highly Productive People
Diving deep into the minds of highly-successful people, we wanted to find out:
- How do they stay focused and overcome productivity killers?
- How do they maximize the amount of energy they have throughout the day, without overly relying on caffeine?
- How do they avoid procrastinating difficult, mentally-challenging tasks?
After hours upon hours of research, we uncovered some fascinating trends.
I’ve personally adopted a few of these habits and I’ve found myself working exponentially faster, crushing my goals, and sustaining more energy throughout the day.
Want the same results? Here are 13 habits to experiment with, common among hyper-productive people:
Habit 1: They take breaks throughout the day.
Well, our biological clock ticks in two forms:
- Circadian Rhythms
- Ultradian Rhythms
Our Circadian Rhythms - which run in 24-hour periods - are our body’s natural release of melatonin, dictating when we’re energized or exhausted. Here’s what it looks like:
Our Ultradian Rhythms, which run in 90-minute periods, are the ebbs and flows of energy throughout the day.
For example, we can be “in the zone” for 90 minutes, but after that, we’ll feel a little tired and need to re-charge. That’s our body’s natural Ultradian Rhythms kicking in, which look like this:
Highly-productive people understand that managing their energy is as important as managing their time.
And the "Pomodoro Technique" is an efficient way to start putting this into practice ...
Habit 2: They work backwards from the future.
Steve Jobs once said:
If too many days passed by with the answer being “no,” he’d adjust his lifestyle until he hit a consistent yes (which eventually created a company worth $702 billion). This forced Steve to define long-term goals and stay motivated.
Highly-productive people think about the end of their lives. They define how they want to be remembered. What legacy they want to leave. Or what people will say about them at their funerals.
Then work backwards to achieve those goals.
This touches on the psychological theories and models of motivation. If we’re driven by a purpose, we’re more likely to work extra hard. As award-winning author, Simon Sinek, says:
Highly-productive people start by defining their purpose, or their "personal mission statement."
Defining their mission creates long-term goals. Long-term goals create smaller goals. Smaller goals create to-do lists.
Thus, it all starts with defining our purpose. What is yours?
Habit 3: They create to-do list sub-deadlines the night before.
Highly-productive people all possess a similar trait: They narrowly focus on their MITs (Most Important Tasks). There are two effective methods for this:
- Writing a to-do list the night before.
- Putting sub-deadlines on the most important tasks.
For example, let’s say the most important task is getting a 10-slide presentation deck finalized. A highly-productive person would create sub-deadlines for that task the night before, which looks like this:
9:00 - 10:00 am: outline the presentation
10:00 - 11:30 am: write copy for the presentation
11:30 - 12:30 pm: create all images for the presentation
12:30 pm: lunch w/ Jack
Creating sub-deadlines forces the person to abide by Parkinson’s Law. This essentially means if something is due at the last minute, it only takes a minute to do.
Habit 4: They leverage tools to prevent internal distractions.
Sure, it’s easy to plan our days, but distractions happen. And they come in two forms:
1. Distractions from ourselves
2. Distractions from other people
Oftentimes the biggest distractions come from within. We think of something, then Google it. We check Facebook, Twitter, or some other website. Or we start flipping through other addicting smartphone apps.
Highly-productive people remove internal distractions by:
- Downloading website-blocking apps, such as StayFocusd, to limit the time spent on certain websites (ex. Facebook)
- Shutting off Wi-Fi when working on MITs (most important tasks).
- “Burying” distracting apps on the last page of their phones.
- Isolating themselves with a full-charged laptop, then racing against the life of their battery to finish their main task (aka a Dead Battery Sprint).
All three drastically reduce distractions. But what about distractions from others?
Habit 5: They keep a separate to-do list for daily distractions.
How do highly-productive people stay focused in the midst of emails, phone calls, chat messages, text messages, and request from others?
They keep a separate to-do list for daily distractions.
For example, if a coworker asks them to review their sales presentation slides, they’d respond with something like:
Nine out of ten times the responses will be:
"Sure! No problem. Take your time."
Then this request is logged on a separate to-do list, which is completed after the day’s most important task:
Dwight Eisenhower has a beautiful quote on this:What's important is not always urgent. And what's urgent is not always important.
Highly-productive people don't let daily distractions pull them from their long-term goals.
A helpful tool for defining these distractions is the Eisenhower Matrix, which helps clarify important versus urgent tasks. Here are a few examples:
Action Step: Define Your Eisenhower Matrix
What tasks are important to you? Which are not? What are frequent distractions? Write them down:
1. The tasks that have the greatest impact on my career are ______________.
2. The tasks I do often, but I don't really benefit long-term career growth are _________.
3. My most common day-to-day distractions are _____________.
Then figure out how you can outsource or delegate the tasks that have the least impact.
Habit 6: They use email tools / systems to optimize their inbox.
It can feel like the Greek story of Sisyphus. Despite how determined we are to get to inbox zero, there’s always something new coming in. It can feel like we’re pushing a boulder up a hill:
Email batching, the systematic approach of checking email in certain blocks throughout the day, helps keep email under control. But if it’s REALLY crazy, and you’re receiving hundreds of emails per day, SaneBox helps cut out the crap.
SaneBox is used by highly-successful people in a variety of industries, such as Hiten Shah (CEO of KissMetrics), Tony Robins (media personality), and Amy Hubbard (casting director of The Hobbit).
HubSpot Sales is another email productivity tool. It shows when someone opens an important email, allows scheduling of emails for later, and viewing contact profiles inside an inbox.
Sidekick is used by teams at major companies such as Oracle, Intuit, Moz, Wistia, Yelp, and more.
Unroll.me is another fantastic tool. It lets you unsubscribe to multiple email lists at once:
Habit 7: They build exercise and healthy eating into their daily routines to increase mental energy.
Brian Balfour, a successful entrepreneur and investor, views his brain as a muscle:
“Think of your brain as a muscle. Just like your arms or legs, your brain needs fuel to do work, exercise to get stronger, and rest to recover. Overall physical fitness is the foundation to mental energy. If you are eating terribly, overweight, and generally not fit, how do you expect your brain to be fit? Regarding our diet, there are certain foods that are healthy fuels, and certain foods that will make you feel cloudy and lethargic.”
Research proves exercise makes our brain alert, attentive, and able to focus better. It’s fuel for our brains, just like what we eat. For example, compare these two lunches:
Eat the BBQ pulled pork and you’re in a post-lunch food coma. Eat the salad and you’re loading your body with rich nutrients, providing more energy than before.
Unhealthy lunches (ex. BBQ sandwich and french fries) spikes our blood sugar, which triggers an insulin spike, which triggers that groggy feeling.
And as we all know, it’s impossible to focus through a food coma.
Habit 8: They optimize their computer skills for speed.
Highly-productive people are lightning-fast on their computers. Here are a few ways they do it:
They increase the speed of the mouse. We use our mouse every day, so why not make navigating our computers even faster?
They learn keyboard shortcuts. Keyboard shortcuts for Google Chrome, Evernote, email, Google Docs, Mac navigation, Windows navigation … the list goes on and on. They’re a huge time saver.
Increasing our type speed. Typing faster means getting work done faster. If you’re slower than 80 WPM (free typing test here), the average for computer-related workers, focus on increasing your speed.
These are just a few simple ways to increase the speed of your day-to-day life on a computer.
Habit 9: They view failure as learning opportunities.
According to PhD psychologist, Carol Dweck, we have two possible mindsets:
1. a fixed mindset
2. a growth mindset
A fixed mindset assumes that our skills, qualities, and character are given.
It’s what causes people to say, “Oh, I’m just not a people person.” Or, “I’ve never been a good test taker.” So they accept defeat, viewing their skills and abilities as some sort of unchangeable, predetermined skill-set granted to them. They seek approval from others and view failure as failure.
A growth mindset, on the other hand, believes all skills and qualities may be learned.
If you suck at writing, you can learn to become a better writer. If you are terrible at sales, you can learn to be better. They thrive on challenges and view failure as a learning opportunity.
Here’s a beautiful illustration from Nigel Holmes on the differences between a fixed and growth mindset:
Take a few moments to think about people in your lives with these two mindsets. Who gives up easily, admitting defeat? Who is always striving to learn something new?
But most importantly, which one are you?
Habit 10: They outsource mindless tasks.
Insanely-productive people focus only on things they specialize in ... then outsource the rest.
Need to do anything of the following?
Do your laundry, clean your bedroom, and scrub the bathroom floor. Use a service such as Handy to outsource your housework.
Pick up groceries from the store. Use Instacart to get groceries delivered to your door.
Highly productive people don’t think, “But this is so expensive! I’d rather save money and do it myself.”
Rather, they consider their salary on a per-hour basis. For example, if someone makes $40/hr and they needed to complete 6 hours worth of chores, they could:
Do it themselves for $240 ($40/hr x 6 hours).
Pay someone else for $90. ($15/hr x 6 hours).
Outsourcing those chores now opens up 6 hours to make $40/hr by working, instead of cleaning.
In that period, the person can earn $240. Subtract the $90 from outsourcing it and this person saved $150 instead of doing the task himself!
Considering tasks on a per-hour basis doesn’t only save time … it saves money.
Habit 11: They meditate.
Some of the most respected people in the world practice mediation. This list includes:
- Mark Benioff, CEO of Salesforce
- Arnold Schwarzenegger
- Tim Ferriss, entrepreneur and author
- Martin Scorsese, film director
- Ray Dalio, hedge-fund manager
The list goes on and on.
Using fMRI scans, scientists can visualize the difference in our brains before and after meditation. Without getting too technical, meditation lets our brains slow down and stop processing information so quickly:
It calms our frontal lobe (or prefrontal cortex), which is where logic and creativity comes from. This gives us better focus, less anxiety, more creativity, more compassion, better memory, and less stress.
The advantages of meditation are endless, which is why so many successful people swear by it.
Habit 12: They say no (nicely).
We’re psychologically hardwired to help people. There’s even a part in our brains, called the Right Supramarginal Gyrus, that triggers empathetic responses:
Thus, saying “no” is surprisingly difficult.
We need a "to-don't" list of things that won't add to our careers. To make it easier to say no, try "no templates." They were developed by Silicon Valley venture capitalist and angel investor, Mark Suster, which look like this:
We want to help. But to be productive, we have to learn when to say no, and focus on our original goals.
Habit 13: They count their blessings and practice gratitude.
The final habit of highly-productive people is being grateful for what they have. Gratitude is proven to increase productivity by these prestigious universities:
- Yale studies say a gratitude journal will result in higher alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness, and energy.
- Harvard studies indicate gratitude improves health and strengthens relationships.
- UC-Berkeley research indicates a gratitude journal improves sleep and decreases illness.
- Columbia University research says gratitude improves the immune system, while reducing anxiety and/or depression.
Research proves gratitude increases happiness; and happiness increases productivity. Thus, gratitude improves productivity:
Being grateful for what we have is one of the fastest way to not only increase productivity, but overall quality of life.
Summary: 13 Habits of Insanely-Productive People
As a snapshot overview, here are the 13 habits of insanely-productive people:
1. They take frequent breaks to restore energy.
2. They're driven by purpose.
3. They create their to-do list the night before (and break major tasks into sub-tasks).
4. They prevent internal distractions.
5. They keep a separate to-do list for external distractions.
6. They optimize their email with smart tools.
7. They build healthy habits into their daily routine.
8. They are lightning fast on the computer.
9. They have a "growth mindset."
10. They outsource mindless tasks.
11. They meditate.
12. They say no (nicely).
13. They count their blessings.