Easy Productivity: The Methods, Tools, And Questions You Need To Get More Done
During the last decade (2010 – 2020) I:
- Graduated with my B.A. & M.A. degrees
- Completed a post-graduate certificate at Princeton
- Married my dream girl
- Moved to a new city twice
- Held one internship, 3 part-time jobs, and 2 full-time jobs
- Wrote for more than a dozen blogs and websites
- Self-published over 20 books
- Experimented with several online businesses (drop-shipping, funnel-building, course-creating, YouTube, etc.)
…all while managing to read at least a book a week (and often many more than that) the entire time.
I say all this because I want you to know that when I talk about productivity, I don’t do it in a vacuum. Most single people don’t need productivity-hacks. What they need is to spend less time on things that don’t matter.
I’ve learned to only take advice from people who have already done what I want to do. Hindsight is 20-20. They have the unique perspective of looking back to understand what worked, instead of looking forward to theorize about what might.
I am nowhere near as accomplished as say the Forbes 30 under 30, but then again, who is? (Seriously, those people blow my mind.) I've been able to plant the seeds of a prolific career I hope to carry on for decades to come.
As Simon Sinek writes in his book, The Infinite Game, the goal isn’t to win…the goal is to keep playing.
With that, I want to introduce you to a few of the tools, resources, and ideas that have had the most significant positive impact on my daily productivity. One theme you'll see throughout this piece is the idea of sustainable productivity.
Accomplishing a lot is less about stringing together Red Bull-fueled all-nighters and 80-hour workweeks, and much more about working on the few things that matter, consistently. Productivity is as much a choice we must make as it is a skill we develop.
In this article, I'll let you peek behind the curtain of my own routine so that you can see, first-hand, how doing more is actually easier than you think.
How To Approach Productivity
The worst thing you can do when it comes to upping your productivity is to blindly jump in and start checking off items on your to-do list.
Instead, take the time to understand how you work. From my experience, there is a spectrum that every single person falls along when it comes to how they approach their responsibilities.
A maximalist is a person "not prepared to compromise." They take a radical approach to their workload and try to do everything, all the time. These people are the shooting stars we see in various fields. The men and women who release new creatives every week or dream up incredible projects back to back to back, with seemingly no rest in between.
Inevitably, these people burn out. Every. Single. Time.
They fade into the background. They’re called one-hit wonders. And the world moves on to new fads and the latest shooting stars.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have minimalists. These people prefer to do the absolute bare minimum required to satisfy the task at hand. While they're not entirely owed the label "lazy," you won't find anyone calling them overly ambitious either.
They get things done, as needed, and no more.
They say that slow and steady wins the race, but not when it comes to productivity-minimalists. These people do too little too slowly for any of their achievements to be particularly worthy of recognition. They may not like that, but not enough to change their ways.
I have found myself at both ends of the spectrum over my career.
During writing projects or graduate school – I was often a maximalist. I said yes to EVERYTHING and EVERYONE and accomplished insane amounts, but at a high cost. My bouts of maximalism landed me in the hospital with stomach ulcers not once, but twice before the age of 27.
I learned my lesson the hard way so, hopefully, you won't have to.
A Better Way Forward
The most effective strategy I’ve found is essentialism. This theory, made popular by author Greg McKeown, is best described as follows:
I love this method because it adds an extra step most other productivity systems miss. It pushes us to ask a simple question that can have a dramatic effect on our workload, mental health, and goals. The question is: should I even be doing this?
A further breakdown of that question could come in two parts: does this really need to be done? And am I the one who needs to do it?
I can guarantee if you examined your current to-do list, there would be at least one item that did not meet these criteria.
With this in mind, I want to introduce you to the 5-step process I use when examining my productivity-priority before I explain the tools, resources, and tactics I use to implement my daily routine.
The T.E.P.A.R. 5-Step System
Step 1: Think
Productivity is ultimately about strategy, and strategy is, at its core, resource-allocation.
Every day we have a limited amount of time, energy, and attention. Our goal with a productivity plan is to decide how to distribute these items best so that we can reach the goals that will move our lives and organizations in the right direction.
Take a set amount of time (I’ve found that 15-25 minutes works well) and list out everything that you need to do for the next day and week.
As you list out these tasks, add a brief sentence besides each describing why it needs to be done. Which goal does it add to?
This is not the time to edit yourself. Also, don't bother making a differentiation between household chores and work-related duties. Anything you have to do will cost you time, energy, and attention, so write it down.
Step 2: Eliminate
Next, we bring in the question(s) we touched on above. How can we filter the list we have in front of us down to only what needs to be done? More than that, how can we filter it down to only the items we should be responsible for?
Don’t be surprised if this step turns out to be more difficult than you expected. Remember, “Good is the enemy of great.” When we get down to the section on recommended reading, I'll discuss how a single chapter of a book radically changed my view on this.
We're getting a little ahead of ourselves, but for context, my daily productivity plans revolve around a single (yes, only 1) 3-month goal, and no more than 3 daily tasks in service of that goal.
I know it doesn't sound like much. But when you're doing the right things (and the hard things), less is always more.
Step 3: Plan
Now that we’ve culled what we need to do, we can spend time answering the other necessary questions:
- Where are we going to get our work done?
- When will we tackle each task, and for how long?
- What tools will we need for our work?
- How can we protect ourselves against inevitable distractions and urgencies?
- How will we know when we’ve succeeded?
Easy questions, right? But answering these ahead of time goes a long way towards helping us keep ourselves accountable.
“Write 1,000 words a day” as a goal seems clear enough. But how does it compare to this:
“I will write 1,000 words between 8 am – 10 am, Monday – Friday. I will write at my desktop computer and use the Pomodoro timer to ensure that I am staying on task. During this time, my phone will be off, and I will not have any browser windows open on my computer. I will know that I have succeeded at this task when I have written at least 1,000 words. If I finish the word count or article before my timer finishes, I will use the rest of the time to review what I've written or complete another writing-related task.”
I've written before about creating goals versus systems, and this is as clear of an example as I can give you without letting you literally sit and watch how I conduct my mornings. A proper plan means you address everything you reasonably can ahead of time so that your work-time becomes sacred.
Step 4: Act
At this stage, you’re ready to hit the road running. You’ve prepped, planned, and culled your priorities. All that’s left is to sit your butt in the chair and do the work.
Most of the tools mentioned later are related to this stage, such as the Chrome Extensions meant to keep you on task and the apps to help you measure your progress.
It’s worth noting that I consider “tracking” to be an essential part of this productivity step. Everything you work on should be measurable, whether that’s a clear output (like wordcount) or simply time-spent on said activity.
Progress is a powerful motivator. Learn how to make it support your goals.
Step 5: Review
Finally, take the time to understand what you accomplished and how efficient you were at the task. The review step is a chance to step back and ask yourself the questions most people never bother asking.
- Did I choose the right priority and tasks?
- Did I use my time and resources well?
- What went right?
- What went wrong?
- What can I do next time to improve Steps 1-4?
The first time I read Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird, I was set free by her idea of "shitty first drafts." It's the idea that no writer gets it 100% right on the first draft. Every writer needs edits. Every master needs a second set of eyes.
Life becomes a lot more enjoyable when you realize failure is expected. You’re supposed to edit and do better the next time around.
The same goes for productivity.
You are going to work on projects that go nowhere. You’re going to invest time and money into things that blow up, or fizzle, or disappear. You’ll be so mentally ready to work one morning only to sit down at your desk and receive a phone call that completely shifts your priority for the next three days.
Productivity-plans don't exist to eliminate all unforeseen detours. They exist to help you work with them, or around them, or despite them.
Productivity is a process, not an event. That’s what I’m hoping this article will help you do better - engage in the process. Most of us are consumed with what needs to happen in the next 7 days. I'm much more interested in what you could accomplish over the next 70 years – by using each hour wisely.
Tools of the (Productivity) Trade
I've organized the various tool below into categories that reflect how and when they are used.
My system is far from perfect. I plan on re-reading Getting Things Done by David Allen in Q2 of 2020 so that I can improve my framework (I mainly need a more streamlined way of capturing my thoughts and making sure they all end up in the proper place.)
Before You Work: Books to Shape Your Productivity
Essentialism. The first book I have to recommend is McKeown's, which I referenced above.
It's a goldmine not only for productivity-theory but also practical examples to follow. Your main takeaway from this book should be an ability to filter out demands on your time. A similar recommendation I'd make is Gary Keller’s The One Thing. However, I connected much more with Essentialism because of the breadth of its application. Read this book first.
Miracle Morning Millionaires. Hal Elrod is a brilliant author and entrepreneur. What he's been able to accomplish with this Miracle Morning publishing series is ridiculously impressive. I know several people who have read the first book, but not as many have taken advantage of the more niche volumes published later on.
I found that these more specific titles, usually co-written with subject-matter experts, are significantly more useful than the original title. The two I always point people towards are Miracle Morning for Writers and Miracle Morning Millionaires – the latter being the one I want to highlight here.
The book as a whole will improve your ability to financially quantify the value of your work, time, and energy. But my favorite chapter, the one that single-handedly shifted my view on productivity, is Chapter 7 in Part II, “Lesson 4: Becoming Super.”
The topic of this chapter is leverage. The authors work to show readers that how you use what you have is infinitely more important than what you start with. As I said before, all strategy can be simplified down to resource-allocation. In a sense, leverage is merely another word for strategy, and strategy is power.
Together, Essentialism and Miracle Morning Millionaires will help you cull your ever-expanding to-do list into something that not only excites you but also moves you forward faster with less energy spent.
12 Week Year. If you've spoken to me in person for more than 5 minutes in the last 18 months, I'm 100% sure this book came up. Granted, the concept might be more helpful than the book itself – but for you to fully immerse yourself in the 12-week ideology, the book is a must-read.
The idea behind Brian Moran's work is simple: instead of creating a list of annual goals, set 1 ambitious quarterly (3-Month) goal, and pour all of your energy and resources into it.
It sounds simple enough, but the effect it’s had on my life is remarkable.
If we stripped everything else away in 2019, my goals were essentially these 4 things:
- Write and publish this book
- Create an online course on publishing
- Quit my job
- Double my writing income from 2018
The timing didn’t work out perfectly within the 3-month “blocks” I was aiming for, but I did accomplish all 4 goals. Now, for 2020, I have a much better sense of how to use the framework more effectively. And how to be even stricter with my time and attention during each 3-month timeframe.
It's worth noting that turning your annual goals into quarterly goals does not mean you have to make them any smaller. Parkinson's Law is alive and well, but you can use it for your advantage. With the right planning, you'll be surprised how many 12-month goals you can accomplish in a ¼ of that time.
Deep Work. I'd be remiss if I didn't give you one more solid book on productivity-theory. Every time I read a Cal Newport book, I feel as though I've just experienced a lecture/coffee-date with him, and I love it.
Deep Work is a book in the same vein as Mastery by Robert Greene, Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin. There are excellent, actionable takeaways in the book, but all of my favorite parts had to do with understanding what deep work actually is and how to use it for my specific craft.
As a writer, it may be more transparent for me than for other professions. I know (from measurement and experience) that most of my great writing doesn't happen until I'm 35-45 minutes into a project. Then, my concentration tops out somewhere between 150-180 minutes (2.5-3 hours).
It's painful, but I know that on most days, the first 30 minutes of writing is mostly warm-up, and a significant portion of those words will end up in the digital recycling bin. They are the price of admission for great writing.
Newport tracks his work in a similar way, keeping tabs on how many hours of deep work he spends on a project and correlating that with how many hours in he was when a particularly useful insight arose. If my memory is correct, most of his best work came only after 4+ hours on a given task, and often much further in than that.
This book also raises another topic of productivity, which we haven't explicitly touched on in this article: the quantity vs. quality debate. This is a topic worth exploring in the future (comment below if you’re interested), and one in which Newport has a definite stance.
Before You Work: Decide What To Do (Notebook)
The first step is to read the books mentioned above and decide on your quarterly focus. Step two would be to boil down that focus into the 3 actionable tasks you need to do today.
Different systems ask you to approach this step in different ways. I prefer to use a physical, lined (ruled) notebook (picture of mine) like one of these two.
On a blank page, I work through my T.E.P.A.R. system and create a list of essential tasks. For me, this system is reasonably intuitive. Each person understands how they work best and will prioritize items differently. Don't be afraid to use some creativity in this part to make it feel like your list reflects you, rather than feeling like a homework assignment.
From there, on a new blank page (at least 1 full page away from the major list, so that I don't have to look at it every time I open my notebook), I write out the 3 tasks I need to do for tomorrow. That way, when I sit down to work, all I have to do is open my notebook, look at my list, and start working.
At the end of each workday, in addition to reviewing what I accomplished, I take a few minutes to write down the 3 tasks I must focus on the next day. This small extra step ensures that I don't spend the first 20 minutes of each day wasting mental energy, figuring what I need to do in the first place.
Furthermore, using a physical notebook reduces the chances that I will get distracted by something else online or on my desktop. Distraction is the most pervasive enemy of your productivity.
During Your Work: Google Chrome Extensions (Kill Distractions)
After many years of squeezing in side-hustle work whenever and wherever I could, I'm now able to work from home.
Having a home office eliminates 90% of random in-person distractions (and I'm incredibly thankful for that). But, it also magnifies the allure of digital ones.
Because of this, all of my recommendations below relate to helping you get the most of your work time when you're sitting at your computer.
Delete Social Media Accounts That Don’t Add Value.
This might be a drastic step, but it’s turned out to be a huge timesaver. Last year, I deleted my Twitter account.
Twitter is a favorite among many writers I know and respect. However, for me – it was just a time suck. I found the platform irritating, and the benefit to my audience minimal at best.
Over the years, I've made some incredible connections through Twitter (a few of which I've met in person). But over time, the platform disintegrated into something I just didn't want to engage with any longer.
I kept my account solely so that I could reply to mentions and messages and occasionally retweet items I found useful or relevant. But keeping this platform alive was one more "leak" in my mental concentration. It wasn't serving any of my primary goals, and I didn't enjoy the experience, so I shut it down.
Despite what industry gurus might tell you, you don't need to be everywhere online in order to be successful. I strongly argue the fact that the most prevalent internet icons reached their status precisely because they chose the opposite strategy: they went big on a single platform, and only after achieving success there did they branch out.
What platform or medium are you willing to go deep on? And are you willing to get rid of everything else?
Kill News Feed – Facebook (Free)
I use Facebook almost exclusively now to manage my author's Facebook page. There, I post links to new posts, share short quotes from my latest writing, and run ads to my most popular content.
Most of this is done while on my desktop computer (I’ll talk about mobile below), so every time I logged in, I was inundated by distractions through my newsfeed. I’d see:
- Friends getting engaged,
- Classmates having babies,
- Random cat videos,
And I would lose 5, 10, or 45 minutes of the day in the black hole of the infinite scroll.
So I got rid of the Facebook newsfeed after hearing a recommendation for this Google Chrome Extension.
It does exactly what it promises. When you log into Facebook, instead of seeing a distracting stream of new posts, all you see is blank space.
Now, I can log in, post, and schedule whatever I need to, then jump right out when I'm done. Why couldn't I have done this before, without the extension? The answer is I could have – we all could. But our willpower is limited, and why waste even 1% of it resisting a distraction that a simple extension could take care of for you.
Maximize the work you don't have to do, the things you are not responsible for, the decisions you don't need to make, and your productivity will rocket.
I love YouTube. It’s, by a long stretch, my favorite social platform. And because of that, it’s also the one I am most likely to get distracted by.
Enter this extension, which drastically reduces the likelihood that a search for one video will turn into an hour-long binge. It removes all recommended videos from the side of the videos you search for. Also, it can eliminate the homepage, trending section, and even comments.
This tool helps you use YouTube as a research tool. You find what you’re looking for and then move on, instead of falling down the recommended hole of distractions.
If you’re a fan of YouTube, I can’t recommend this addon enough.
BlockSite Mobile App (Free)
BlockSite is a mobile app that enables you to restrict access to any website in your browser. All you do is type in the URL for that site and add it to the blocked list.
There’s also a premium version of the app that allows you to automatically schedule when the website is accessible and when it is restricted. Furthermore, it has additional features like Work Mode, Adult Block, and more.
Since social media and a few news sites are my biggest distractions, I deleted all of their apps off my phone and added their URLs to my Block List in the app. That way, during my work hours, I’m unable to access them.
App Timer – Google Pixel
Switching from iPhone and Verizon to a Google Pixel and Google Fi was a huge win for my productivity (and wallet). The only thing I miss is the Strides Goal Tracking app (it's just so good). But I've gained 10x by joining the Google sphere.
I can write a separate article in the future about how I use the Google framework to shape my work and personal productivity (things like Google Drive, Home, and Fi are lifesavers when used together). For now, I want to talk about one of the built-in features.
If you go to Settings > Apps & notifications > See all * apps, you'll get a list of every app installed on your Google phone. If you click on an individual app, like my current favorite mobile game Mario Kart, you'll see more options such as Permission and Mobile data usage. There's also an Advanced drop-down menu that gives you a few more options, one of them being Screen time.
When you click on Screen time, you’ll see a graph displaying the apps usage and a setting underneath labeled App timer.
If you click on that option, a window will pop up called "Set app timer" that allows you to set the maximum amount of time you're allowed to use the app in a single day.
For most of my games or for-fun apps, I set the timer somewhere between 30-60 minutes. This helps add another layer of accountability to ensure that I am not wasting time on frivolous activities in-between tasks during the day.
I've hugely improved upon this area. It's so easy to "lose" 10 minutes here and there when you're switching to a new task or when you work from home, adding 10 minutes to a phone call or a walk.
When done in moderation, these additions are fine. But I found that I was losing 1-2 hours a day I simply couldn't account for because of sloppy transitions. App timers and schedule software will help you clean this up if you find yourself in a similar situation.
After You Work: Track To Grow
Adding tracking and review steps to your productivity plan will be game-changing. They force you to be more mindful of how you spend your time and energy. And they show you, with cold hard data, whether or not you are progressing towards your stated goals.
Once you read some of the above-recommended books and do a little research online, you'll see that there are dozens of tools online to help you with this step. I prefer the simpler options. You'll notice that almost every tool I've recommended so far is passive. It doesn't require me to learn something new or turn something on every time I need to use it.
In the same way, I don’t want my tracking and review tools to be overcomplicated. I want them to tell me exactly what I need to know, and I want them to make it as easy for me to use them as possible.
Toggl – Time Tracking Software (Free)
One of my favorite 2020 additions has been the Toggl tool. Toggl is a simplified timeclock software primarily advertised as a way for freelancers to invoice clients for billable hours.
However, with the free version, you're able to track your time (either in real-time with a timer, or by manually inputting time blocks), categorize your projects, and create simple graphs which display all of the most important information.
I've used similar tools in the past, including paid time-tracking software, and they were all most robust than I needed. As a solopreneur, I don't need a complicated tool. I wanted something easy to use and visual, and that's precisely what Toggl is.
Tracking your time helps you eliminate waste (such as the sloppy transitions we touched on above). It also helps you put into perspective how long specific tasks realistically take.
For example, I estimated one writing project was taking me approximately 2-3 hours per week to complete. But after tracking my work on it, I found that it was taking at least double that. As I go forward, I will make sure to schedule the appropriate amount of time for those types of projects and also make sure that my compensation reflects how much work they require.
I use the manual input method because I found myself overthinking about the timer. So, when I start a task, I scribble down on a sticky note when I began, and then when I finish, I pull up Toggl (web app or desktop app) and enter what I was working on.
At the end of each week, I review my entries to see how much time I spent working, what was the time spent on, and did I accomplish what I planned. If time is our most valuable resource than we should track it just as closely as we would our finances.
Excel – Track Pages Read & Words Written ($10)
As a writer, my productivity can be boiled down to input and output. Input is how much good reading I'm doing. Good reading includes items such as books and literary magazines. I don't count Buzzfeed articles or social media posts unless they are directly related to my current research.
Output is simply word count. How many words am I writing and publishing on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis.
I stumbled upon this elaborate Excel sheet two years ago and have been using modified versions of it ever since: link to tutorial video.
The original version is meant to track daily writing output for writers. I’ve modified the original so that I have two versions.
The first sheet tracks my writing output much like the original version intended, although I hide about 40% of the columns since I only work on one project at a time, in the same location, and only need to track certain stats. I love the goal-tracking and graph-producing abilities of these sheets. For $10, this tool is an absolute steal.
The second version I created tracks the number of pages I read monthly. My goal is modest, usually between 20-40 pages a day or between 600-1,200 a month, which comes out to 3-5 books on average (most of the books I read are 240-400 pages in length).
I tried tracking estimated word counts for books and articles, but I found the process too granular and not accurate enough to track. Page count isn't 100% accurate because some pages can be read in <1 minute while others (like academic works) take several minutes to read and comprehend. Still, I've found that it averages out to a useful statistic on whether or not I am making consistent progress on my reading list.
For word count tracking, I've lowered my output significantly for Q1 2020 from 1,000+ words a day to 300. The reason is that my focus for Q1 was more exploratory, and I knew that a heavy production schedule would hamper that priority. So, while I still spend dedicated time each day to writing, not all of it is spent on creating new pieces.
Some of that time is spent on learning vocabulary, practicing grammar, and studying other author's writing. These are all items I intend to start tracking soon.
Productivity Honorable Mentions
Below are a few more recommendations that you’ll find useful, but which didn’t quite fit into the priority for this article.
- A Pomodoro Timer (physical or app) – For most of my writing time blocks, I do use timers. I recommend downloading an app like this or purchasing a physical, visual timer like this one. As mentioned above, I like the 25 minutes on, 5 minutes off routine – at least until I get warmed up. Then I usually turn the timer off or set it for a 2-3 hour time block to make sure that I do eventually get and drink some water!
- Evernote Brain Dump File – This relates to the Getting Things Done framework, which I will be using more seriously later this year. Essentially, you need a place to capture all of your random ideas – work-related or not. I like Evernote for this because its minimal, searchable, and accessible from multiple devices. The less randomness you have in your head, the more focus you can dedicate to the task at hand.
- An Ergonomic Setup – The last thing that should be hampering your productivity is back pain or neck pain from sitting at a desk that was poorly set up. I'll share my own set up with you in the future, but for now, some of the essentials I use are a standing desk, supportive chair, monitor stand, ergonomic mouse, and keyboard.
I just firehosed you with information on how to become more productive. The next step is to think about what stood out to you most: do you need to pick up a recommended book, install Chrome extensions, or start using the T.E.P.A.R. system?
Take one step right now (literally, in the next five minutes) so that all of this information doesn't just become something you know – but rather, something you do.
From there, I highly recommend you read this article by Elaine Meyer on Productivity Myths. Her research on the topic and actionable takeaways are a goldmine.
Finally, leave a comment below telling me what you plan to work on. What project has you excited right now? And how do you plan to use these productivity tips to achieve it?