How Successful People Increase Productivity

People ask me about productivity habits all the time. I’ve packaged most of that advice in a productivity webinar available to members of our learning community but I wanted to tell you one counter-intuitive strategy that a lot of people use to increase their productivity: stop the to-do list.

These lists are rarely as effective as scheduling time.

“Scheduling,” writes Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work, “forces you to confront the reality of how much time you actually have and how long things will take.”

It’s really easy to add things to a to-do list. Because it’s so simple, these lists tend to grow and grow. Even worse they encourage us to say yes to almost everything because, well, we can just add it to our list. This means we’re not discriminating and we’re not as conscious about controlling our time as we should be.

As Steve Jobs said, it’s easy to say yes but the real value comes from saying no.

Warren Buffett agrees: “You’ve got to keep control of your time, and you can’t unless you say no. You can’t let people set your agenda in life.”

Most people have the default of saying yes to everything. Personal relationships aside, the default, however, should be no. This is how you increase productivity.

When you schedule things, you are forced to deal with the fact that there are only so many hours in a week. You’re forced to make choices rather than add something to a never-ending to-do list that only becomes a source of anxiety. And you can’t just schedule important work and creative stuff. You need to schedule time for rest and recovery and mundane things like email.

Scheduling things also creates a visual feedback mechanism for how you actually spend your time — something we’re intentionally blind to because we won’t like what we see.

Just as important, you need to think about your energy levels and when you schedule these tasks. This is another key to increasing productivity.

A lot of people I’ve offered productivity advice to spend hours a day on email. It’s not uncommon for people to tell me their job is moving email around. That’s how the modern office works right? While many of these people hate email, it’s not within their control (or mine) to change how the organization works. Instead, I help them look at what is within their control — the time of day they invest in an email. I’ve discovered most people use some of their most productive and high-energy time on … email. That means that some of our best mental energy is being used on the low value-add task of email. A simple change to schedule “doing email” for times when we have less energy makes a world of difference to both productivity and happiness.

Being more productive isn’t always about doing more, it’s about being more conscious about what you work on and putting your energy into the two or three things that will really make a difference.