When I graduated University with a business degree last May, I received two incredible full-time job offers, both of which I declined because I had a plan.
For exactly one year, from May 1, 2013, through May 1, 2014, I would devour everything I could get my hands on about productivity, and write every day about the lessons I learned on A Year of Productivity.
Over the last 12 months I have conducted countless productivity experiments on myself, interviewed some of the most productive people in the world, and read a ton of books and academic literature on productivity, all to explore how I could become as productive as possible, and then write about the lessons I learned.
One year, 197 articles, and over one million hits later, I’ve reached the end of my year-long journey, but not before going out with a bang.
To close out my year of productivity, I have assembled a collection of all of the biggest things I’ve learned in my journey to become as productive as possible. Below are the 10 biggest productivity lessons I learned over the course of my project, and I also put together an article on my 100 favorite time, energy, and attention hacks I experimented with over the course of the year! I know you’ll get a ton out of both articles.
Without further ado, here are the top 10 productivity lessons I learned over the course of the entire year.
10. One of the best ways to become more productive is to work on your highest-leverage tasks
There are just a few tasks in every area of your life (like your mind, body, emotions, relationships, career, finances, and fun) that contribute most of the value in each area. For example, there are likely just a few activities in your work through which you contribute 80–90% of your value to whomever you work for.
One of the best ways to accomplish more is to identify and then work on the highest-leverage tasks in each area of your life, because these are the activities that give you the greatest return for your time, energy, and attention.
9. The three most effective ways to become more productive are also the most boring pieces of advice you’ve already received
I think that behind every cliché is a truth that’s so powerful that people feel compelled to repeat the phrase over and over and over. This holds true for productivity advice, as well.
Over the last year I experimented with integrating countless habits and productivity techniques into my life, but at the end of the day, the three productivity techniques that worked the best for me were:
- Eating well
- Getting enough sleep
These pieces of advice are repeated so often that they lose almost all of their meaning. But take it from me, as someone who has experimented with hundreds of techniques to better manage my time, energy, and attention over the last decade: nothing has made me more productive than eating well, getting enough sleep, and exercising.1
8. Always question blanket productivity advice
There are some pieces of advice that work well for most people—eating well, getting enough sleep, exercise, and meditation included—but there are also exceptions to every rule.
It’s okay to buck conventional wisdom if something else works better for you. Find you get more done when you don’t wake up at 5:30 every morning? Then sleep in! Find you get more done when you don’t do your most important task first thing in the morning, and instead answer a bunch of emails? Then answer your email!
There is usually a kernel of truth behind every piece of productivity advice and conventional wisdom, but there are also a ton of productivity techniques that simply won’t work for you. Everyone thinks differently and has different priorities, so no piece of productivity advice will work perfectly for 100% of people, 100% of the time.
It’s okay to buck conventional wisdom if something else works better for you—and you should.
7. Forming good habits makes you more productive automatically
I think one of the best ways to become more productive is to convert new, productive behaviors into habits so you do them automatically.
According to Charles Duhigg, the author of The Power of Habit, 40–45% of our daily activities are automatic habits. Habit formation isn’t easy, and it sometimes takes a few months to integrate a new habit into your life, but once a new behavior becomes a habit, you automatically level up to become more productive.
For example, it took me a few months to form a habit to wake up at 5:30 every morning, but after I did, waking up early became a keystone habit and I woke up early every morning automatically. It also took me several weeks to integrate a new eating regimen into my life, but after I did, my new eating habits simply became part of the tapestry of my life; blending in with all of my other automatic behaviors.
If you want to learn how to integrate new habits into your life, check out my interview with Charles. Forming new habits isn’t easy, especially when you have to expend willpower to will yourself into changing your behavior at first, but things get progressively easier as you go on, until you finally become more productive automatically.
6. There are three ingredients you combine on a daily basis to be productive: time, energy, and attention
Toward the end of my project, I realized that every single article I wrote could be classified into one (or more) of three categories: how to better manage your time, how to better manage your energy, and how to better manage your attention.
I think all three ingredients are absolutely essential if you want to be productive on a daily basis. Some people have an amazing amount of energy and focus, but they’re not good at managing their time, so they don’t work on the right things and don’t get a lot done. Some people are great at managing their time and have a lot of energy, but they’re constantly distracted so they procrastinate and don’t get a lot done. Some people have laser-like focus and they know how to manage their time well, but they’re not good at managing their energy so they drag their feet and don’t get a lot done.
Productive people know how to effectively manage all three.
Interlude: 10 productivity experiments from my year of productivity
10 of my favorite experiments from my year of productivity, in no particular order. Just click on any picture to visit the experiment’s article.
1. Meditating for 35 hours over 7 days
2. Watching 70 hours of TED talks over 7 days
3. Eating only “soylent” for a week
4. Living in total isolation for 10 days
6. Rotating between dressing forma, business casual, and in pyjamas for 21 days
8. Using my smartphone for an hour a day, for 3 months
9. Drinking only water for a month
5. There is no one secret to becoming more productive, but there are hundreds of tactics you can use to get more done
If there is a secret to becoming more productive, I didn’t find it during my year of experimenting with and exploring productivity.
But what I did discover were hundreds of tactics that I could use to better manage my time, energy, and attention. In fact, I uncovered so many of these tactics that I assembled a list of my favorite 100 tactics when I closed out my year.
Productivity is very much a holistic concept, characterized by the understanding of its interconnected parts. There are hundreds (if not thousands) of factors that contribute to how much you get done every day, every single one of which has to do with being able to manage your time, energy, and attention.
There isn’t one secret to becoming more productive—there are hundreds.
4. Working too hard or too much shatters your productivity
Over the course of my project, I found that working too hard or too much completely shattered my productivity.
As a productivity experiment I worked 90-hour weeks for a month, alternating between working 90 hours one week and then 20 hours the next. I actually found that I got about as much work done in both my 90-hour and 20-hour weeks, for a simple reason: when I limited how much time I spent on a task, I forced myself to exert more energy over less time so I could get the task done in what limited time I had. When I threw more time at my work in my longer weeks, I tended to procrastinate more, work on lower-leverage activities, and waste more time.
What happens when you work too hard and throw too much energy at a task? You burn out. (Interestingly, I didn’t uncover any adverse effects to throwing more attention at a task, though I find that your attention and energy levels often rise and fall in tandem.) I think of energy as the fuel a person burns throughout the day to get work done. When you throw more energy at your work without taking the time to recharge or nurture your energy levels along the way—like by exercising, taking breaks, eating well, or investing in effective stress relief strategies—you’re going to run out of fuel and burn out.
Working too much or too hard completely shatters your productivity because doing so robs you of two of your most valuable resources: your time, and your energy.
3. The best way to feel motivated is to know why you want to get something done
The most motivated (and productive) people are the ones who constantly question why they’re doing what they are doing.
When you focus on doing more things, as opposed to doing things that are aligned to your values and what you believe in, you may be able to push yourself to be productive in the short run, but in the long run you’re going to be a lot less satisfied and productive. The key is to determine what you value and what motivates you the most, and then take on tasks and responsibilities that fit with your values.
Just because you’re constantly busy and you produce a lot doesn’t mean you’re productive—in fact, I’d argue that the opposite is the case. Productivity isn’t about how much you do, it’s about whether you achieve the outcomes that are the most important to you.
When you always know why you’re doing something, you’re going to be a lot more motivated and productive.
2. Becoming more productive is pointless if you’re not kind to yourself in the process
The reason I write so much about being kind to yourself on A Year of Productivity is because it’s the part of productivity that I struggle with the most.
When I first started AYOP, I dove head-first into the project because there isn’t anything I’m more passionate about than becoming more productive. It was easy, and at first I loved it; I didn’t put too much pressure on myself, so I had no problem getting work done.
But as this project grew, and as this site went from receiving a few thousand visits a month to a hundred thousand visits a month, I put more and more pressure on myself to write, experiment, and perform. And as a result, I had a lot less fun.
That’s hard to admit, particularly when a lot of people would kill to be in the position I find myself in today—exploring the topic I’m most passionate about, and making a go of it. But it just goes to show how important it is to be kind to yourself when you pressure yourself into becoming more productive.
Becoming more productive doesn’t happen without effort—you have to put pressure on yourself to perform better, but in the process it’s all too easy to be hard on yourself while you’re trying to make positive changes to your life.
Constantly be mindful of how kind you are to yourself when you’re pushing yourself to get more done. When 80% of what you say to yourself in your head is already negative, it’s important that you are kind to yourself every chance you get, particularly when you’re putting more pressure on yourself to become a better human being.
1. Productivity isn’t about how much you produce, it’s about how much you accomplish
When I first started my year of productivity, I created a Stats page so I could share exactly how productive I was every day. Every day I posted the number of words I wrote, pages I read, and hours I worked, because I considered these to be pretty good measurements of how productive I was.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Unless you run a factory, measuring your productivity based only on how much you produce gives you only a shallow, limited picture of how productive you are. In fact, if you come up with an intelligent and creative approach to a problem—let’s say that you find a way to write 500 words in 100—when you measure your productivity simply by how much you produce, you’re much less productive!
It’s easy to get caught up on measurements and statistics, but as far as personal productivity is concerned, statistics are secondary. Productivity isn’t about how much you produce, it’s about how much you accomplish.
It’s important to do tasks that are high leverage and meaningful, and it’s also important that you know how to manage your time, energy, and attention so you have the resources you need to get more done. But at the end of the day, when you have no more time, energy, or attention left, the only thing you’re left with is what you have accomplished, and the difference you have made in the world because you did something valuable with a day of your life.
That’s what productivity is all about.
I would also include meditation in this list, though I’ll readily admit that the practice isn’t as accessible to most people as eating well, sleeping more, or working out. ↩