15 Habits of Productive People
- They take frequent breaks to restore energy
- They're driven by purpose
- They create their to-do list the night before (and break major tasks into sub-tasks)
- They prevent internal distractions
- They keep a separate to-do list for external distractions
- They optimize their email with smart tools
- They build healthy habits into their daily routine
- They are lightning fast on the computer
- They have a "growth mindset"
- They outsource mindless tasks
- They meditate
- They say no (nicely)
- They count their blessings
- They avoid decision fatigue
- They love productivity hacks
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 15 fascinating trends.
Habit 1: They take work breaks throughout the day.
Should I Take Work Breaks?
Absolutely! A quick break can dramatically improve focus, productivity, and creativity. Tap into your circadian and ultradian rhythms to unlock your true potential and give your brain a break.
Research validates (here and here) that brief breaks from a task dramatically improves one’s focus and productivity. Why?
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 ...
Action Step: Try the Pomodoro Technique
To sustain energy throughout the day, try The Pomodoro Technique. Work in 25-minute intervals, then take a 5-minute break. It looks like this:
For more information, read the step-by-step process for how to get started.
Habit 2: They work backwards from the future.
Steve Jobs once said:
If today was the last day of my life, would I want to do what I’m about to do today?
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 they 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:
People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.
What is a Personal Mission Statement?
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?
Action Step: Define Your Personal Mission Statement
Writing a personal mission statement requires introspection. Asking yourself:
- What am I actually passionate about? (Lifehack alert: To find what you're passionate about, ask yourself, "If all jobs paid the same, what would I do for work?")
- What can I do better than most people, or comes easier for me than others?
- What do I want people to say about me at my funeral?
For inspiration, read the personal mission statements of five famous CEOs.
Habit 3: They create to-do list sub-deadlines the night before.
What are "Most Important Tasks?"
Highly-productive people all possess a similar trait: They narrowly focus on their MITs (Most Important Tasks).
There are two effective methods for this: 1. Writing a to-do list the night before, and 2. 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/ Rose
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.
Action Step: Write Your To-Do List At Night
Plan your entire day the night before.
Step 1: Define your most important task.
Step 2: Break that into smaller sub-tasks.
Step 3: Create deadlines for each smaller sub-task.
This forces you to abide by tighter deadlines and be realistic about what you can accomplish.
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:
- Distractions from ourselves
- 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.
How to Remove Internal Distractions:
- Download website-blocking apps, such as StayFocusd, to limit the time spent on certain websites (ex. Facebook)
- Shut off Wi-Fi when working on MITs (most important tasks)
- “Bury” distracting apps on the last page of your phone
- Isolate yourself with a fully charged laptop, then race against the life of the battery to finish your main task (aka a Dead Battery Sprint)
All four of these tips will drastically reduce distractions. But what about distractions from others?
Action Step: Save Yourself From Distracting Yourself
Stop internal distractions by following these steps:
Step 1: Download StayFocusd to stop procrastinating on Facebook, Twitter, etc.
Step 2: Bury distracting apps on the last page of your phone
Step 3: Shut off your Wi-Fi to remove any potential "Black Hole Browsing"
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:
No problem, happy to help.
I’m on a tight deadline right now, so would it be possible if I got back to you later today?
Nine out of ten times the responses will be, "Sure, no problem!"
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:
To define your Eisenhower Matrix, start by deciding what tasks are important to you? Which are not? What are frequent distractions? Write them down:
- The tasks that have the greatest impact on my career are ______________.
- The tasks I do often, but I don't really benefit long-term career growth are _________.
- 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:
Project management software can integrate with email software such as Outlook and Gmail and help centralize your communication and workflows to create a unified workspace. Integrated email communication can make siloed email threads visible to anyone you work with, cutting down unnecessary time spent syncing with your team.
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 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.
Unroll.me is another fantastic tool. It lets you unsubscribe to multiple email lists at once:
CleanEmail is another great email unsubscribe tool. Aside from getting rid of newsletters and promotional messages you no longer need, CleanEmail organizes all emails into easy-to-review bundles such as Finance emails, Travel emails, Emails from "dead ends", etc. Moreover, its automation features allow you to apply any action to new incoming emails without any manual work.
Finally, learning email shortcuts can save up to 60 hours per year. There are email shortcuts for Gmail, Outlook, and Apple Mail.
Action Step: Download Email Productivity Tools
Try email productivity tools such as:
SaneBox for filtering out unimportant emails.
Sidekick for seeing when someone opens an email (plus email scheduling and contact profiles).
Unroll.me for mass-unsubscribing from newsletters.
These are the "big three" email productivity tools that an inbox much easier to manage.
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) spike 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.
Action Step: Create Healthy "Tiny Habits"
Stanford behavioral psychologist, Dr. BJ Fogg, encourages people to try "Tiny Habits." These are small, easy-to-do actions which trigger long-term behavior change.
To exercise more: Start by running for just two minutes a day. As you're more comfortable, run for three minutes. Then four minutes. Increasing in tiny intervals until you've built running as a habit.
To eat healthier: Eat salad just on Wednesday for lunch. Eat unhealthy any other day. The next week, eat salad for Wednesday and Friday. The week after that, eat salad for Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Just keep increasing in tiny intervals until it's adapted into your daily routine.
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.
- Using tools to find apps quickly. A favorite of entrepreneur Noah Kagan is a free tool called Alfred (for Mac). It helps quickly find programs we need to open.
- 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.
- Use dual monitors. This setup can boost your productivity by up to 50%. No more switching between tasks and documents.
These are just a few simple ways to increase the speed of your day-to-day life on a computer.
How to Increase Computer Speed
- Increase the speed of your mouse.
- Take a few moments to think of the programs you use most and learn keyboard shortcuts them.
- Download Alfred (for Mac) or Launchy (for Windows) and never touch your Applications tab or Start menu again.
- Take a typing test. If you're slower than 80 WPM, take classes to get to at least 80 WPM.
Habit 9: They view failure as learning opportunities.
According to PhD psychologist, Carol Dweck, we have two possible mindsets:
- Fixed mindset
- 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.” 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 life 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?
Action Step: Self-Reflection Time
Ask yourself if you've ever said the following:
"I could never thrive in sales. I'm just not a people person."
"I'll never be good at public speaking. I just get nervous, start sweating, and feel uncomfortable."
"I've always been a terrible writer. I've just accepted the fact I'll always be bad."
If so, you may have a fixed mindset. Remind yourself that anything is learnable. Any skills, despite how much you may suck right now, are possible to learn.
For more on adapting your mindset, check out Carol Dweck's book, Mindset: The New Psychology Of Success.
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?
- Mindlessly input data into a spreadsheet. Get a virtual assistant for $5-$10/hr from UpWork or FancyHands to help you.
- 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 herself.
Considering tasks on a per-hour basis doesn’t only save time … it saves money.
Action Step: Identify Tasks To Outsource
Follow this three-step process:
Step 1: Identify what tasks you hate doing, but are easy to do. Spreadsheet data entry? Laundry? Picking up groceries?
Step 2: Find websites to outsource your work to them. Use UpWork or FancyHands for virtual assistants. Handy for chores around the house. Instacart for grocery delivery. Fiverr for speciality projects for $5. Or try 99Designs for design projects. If there's something particular you'd like to outsource, not mentioned here, comment below and I'll help identify a solution.
Step 3: Giving instructions takes time in itself. Use email templates to outsource your work to save up to 520 hours per year.
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, actor and politician
- Tim Ferriss, entrepreneur and author
- Martin Scorsese, film director
- Ray Dalio, hedge-fund manager
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 come 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.
Action Step: Download "Headspace"
Headspace is an iPhone and Android app that guides you through the basics of meditation, in 10 minutes per day.
I've tried plenty of other applications and methods, but I've found nothing better than Headspace to learn the basics and get started. All in just 10 minutes per day. Plus, it's free.
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:
Thank you for writing to me – it’s nice to hear from you (or meet you) via email.
Fortunately [my company] has started to take off in ways that I couldn’t have imagined just a short time ago. Unfortunately that means I don’t have as much time as I used to have to take meetings with people.
I hope you’ll understand. I’m now under a lot of pressure from my board to deliver against some pretty ambitious goals. I do try to get to tech social events from time-to-time so I hope we can catch up there.
Hope you understand.
We want to help. But to be productive, we have to learn when to say no and focus on our original goals.
This is especially important when it comes to meetings. According to Atlassian, the average person spends 31 hours per month in meetings but considers just 50% of that time productive. Just because you're invited to a meeting doesn't mean you're obligated to attend -- ask for the agenda, consider the value you'll both provide and gain, and make the call.
Action Step: Save "No Templates" As a Canned Response
Follow these steps:
Step 1: Set up Google Canned Responses in Gmail or download TextExpander for Microsoft.
Step 2: Create a "no template," modeling your response off Mark Susters.
Step 3: Send the response when necessary.
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.
Habit 14: They avoid decision fatigue.
What is Decision Fatigue?
Decision fatigue refers to the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual after a long session of decision making. It can lead to irrational decisions and poor choices. For example, judges actually make less favorable decisions later in the day.
From Zuckerberg to Jobs, leaders avoid decision fatigue by removing trivial choices, like wearing the same hoodie or black turtleneck every day. Steve Jobs often ate one type of food for weeks -- once eating so many carrots his skin turned orange.
President Obama was known for "Decision Memos" in which three checkboxes were attached at the bottom of documents needing his attention. He would check "Agree," "Disagree," or "Let's Discuss" to let his staff know how to proceed.
Habit 15: They love productivity hacks.
Have a new way to shave .5 seconds off a task? Insanely-productive people want to know your secret. Here are a few productivity hacks you can try out in your workflow:
- Make your lunch in batches at the start of the week
- Block time on your calendar before others do
- Don't use the one-hour default on your calendar
- Take a 30-minute nap and boost performance 34%
- Turn off phone notifications
- Listen to ambient sounds instead of pop music
- Sit by a window
- Set the thermostat for 70-77 degrees
- Work in varied environments like coffee shops and parks
- Mute your Gmail with Inbox Pause
- Black out background browser tabs/notifications
- Try a dictation app
- Sort tasks by "Must, Should, Want" every day
- If it takes less than two minutes, do it now
- Work on a big task for just 5 minutes
They might seem like small gains seperately, but if you add a few of these to your workflow each week, you might be surprised at the effect they have on your speed and efficiency.