The 7 rules of productivity

Written 15 January, 2019, 5 minutes to read

We all want to become more productive – but how do we get there and how long will it take? Once you realize that there is no single version of “productivity”, things actually get a bit easier. Understanding your own personal vision of productivity can make an enormous difference to the way that you both live and work – there are just a few basic principles you need to master first. Here are seven basic rules of productivity to get you there.

1. Measure it

Measuring productivity is key if you want to get even the vaguest inkling of how you’re currently performing. Without knowing how effective you currently are, how do you know where you need to improve – or even what improvement should look like?

Before you measure productivity, of course, you need to decide what it actually means for you. There is no one absolute definition of productivity – its shape varies dramatically from person to person. If you’re not sure how you quantify your own productivity, check out this guide to find a useful working definition you can then measure.

There are a ton of different ways to measure productivity, but these single factor measures are a good place to start:

  • Average task length / total hours used;
  • Total hours worked / hours budgeted;
  • Total hours available / active work time;
  • Number of tasks completed / time spent;
  • Time spent per project / profit generated.

2. Track your time

The idea of productivity is inescapably linked with time: it’s the universal value by which we measure the effectiveness of our efforts. It’s not purely coincidental that all of the measurements of productivity in the section above depend on some form of time recording.

By tracking time, we seek to gain huge insight into our own behaviors, routines, workflows and obstacles. It can show us where and how we get distracted, which jobs are taking too long, which low-value tasks steal our time, and reveal any “trapped” or “dead” time in our schedule. By knowing exactly how long we spend on different project tasks, we can calculate productivity benchmarks for different types of work – which gives us something concrete to measure future performance against.

Actually getting time data doesn’t have to be hard either. While some people still like to keep manual activity logs, you can now understand where your time goes automatically with the help of tools like Timely. By tracking the time you spend in different work apps in the background, the data gathered by automatic time trackers is infinitely more accurate. Crucially, it also doesn’t require that you interrupt your day to note activities down.

3. Don’t waste time

It sounds obvious, but it’s more complex than you think. You may not be aware of just how much time you’re unconsciously frittering away on mundane or arbitrary jobs – things like email, meetings, routine accounting and invoicing.

You shouldn’t waste time on a low-value task that you can outsource for the same (or better) quality. There are countless tools and apps that now automate these repetitive jobs for you, and the pay-off in returned productive time is usually worth more than the monthly subscription fee of using them. Have a think about the low-value tasks that swallow up valuable space for productive work – and check out this list of AI-powered productivity apps to see how to outsource them.

4. Prioritize what’s important, not what’s urgent

Another rule of productivity centers around the "Eisenhower Principle" – the idea of focusing on the tasks that are actually important, rather than just urgent. Many of us panic when deadlines loom, even for tasks that aren’t important, and as a result we neglect the activities that are actually key to our own success and personal development.

Similarly, we need to be aware of our tendency to choose smaller tasks over meaty, complex ones. Working our way quickly through a to-do list feels productive, but in reality we may be spending our efforts on something disproportionally small and insignificant. It’s been dubbed “small task addiction” – you’ll know if you have it if you constantly feel busy, but have relatively little to materially show for your efforts by the end of the day.

5. Classify what’s productive and what’s non-productive

Linked to the above, we need to figure out which tasks and activities yield the biggest return, and which yield the smallest. If you can identify a job you’re doing that has zero return, why are you doing it? Why invest your valuable time on an activity that isn’t giving you something back?

In many cases, this comes down to a very frank self-conversation over which tasks are actually useful, and which are thinly-veiled procrastination. Once you know your productive from your unproductive tasks, you’re in a better position to adjust the balance – and you’ll hopefully have greater awareness of the value you’re producing at any given moment.

6. Plan, plan, plan!

Planning is integral to increasing productivity. A good plan sets a productive agenda for each day – it details everything you want to accomplish, and therefore what “productive” should look like. Take time to structure this properly: begin with your most important job (important, not urgent!) and set realistic expectations for what you’ll achieve.

Planning and ensuring your working day has structure is a great way to stay on top of things and not get distracted – research has even shown how a considered daily plan can help increase work engagement. Without one, you don’t really know what you’re working – and so won’t be able to get there.

7. Give yourself a break

Be under no illusions: to stay productive and produce our best work, we need to mix work with rest. While you’re planning, be sure to consider when you’ll have a break, and how long for. Working intensely for extended periods with few quality breaks can lead to disturbed sleep, stress, anxiety and depression – just a small drop in sleep quality can have an impact on your cognitive and motor performance similar to alcohol intoxication.

Don’t make the mistake of being too stingy with your downtime – having space to relax and breathe is an important part of working to the best of your ability. While breaks are essential, consider turning your phone onto airplane mode while you’re working; getting distracted by a photo of your friend’s puppy helps no-one.


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