5 Steps to Superior Productivity

People often ask how I get so much done. It’s not complicated. In fact, I think most time-management routines are too damn ambitious. They require you to jam your life into an obnoxiously strict system. A few weeks later, you’re lucky if you’re using ONE of the techniques.

In my experience, you only need a few habits to become super-productive. I’ll share the top five below. If you master even two or three of these, you’ll get more done in a week than most people do in a month. If you master all five, you’ll get more done in five years than most people do in their entire life.

I know that’s hard to believe. But I think you’ll agree as you read these for yourself…

#1: Pick Your “One Thing”

Pick ONE THING you can become truly awesome at and make it your life’s focus. In my experience, most ambitious people have too many interests. They never become truly awesome, I’m talking world class awesome,because they never narrow these interests down to ONE single obsession.

I know. I can list at least twelve things I’d LOVE to be great at. And if I had the time and energy, I probably could. But I don’t. So I narrowed my focus. It’s been one of the smartest decisions I’ve ever made. So I suggest you do the same.

Start with a list of your top interests. Narrow them down to the few for which you have a natural knack. Then, narrow your list further by selecting one or two interests which you can become truly obsessed with. Don’t worry if you’re not great at them yet. Once you pick your One Thing, your natural passion will take over and you’ll be amazed at how fast you pick up momentum.

Next, ask yourself which item on your list is likely to yield the biggest return on your investment. If you’re unsure, ask yourself what people will be most likely to remember you for 100 years from now. Or, ask yourself how someone in another country, who has NEVER heard of you, might be most likely to hear about you.

Don’t get hung up on money when answering this last question. Too many people pick their One Thing based on what they think will make them a living. Ironically, most of them burn up their disposable income buying things they THINK will make up for their lack of happiness. Don’t be one of these people.

If your One Thing is interesting to other people, and if you make it your primary obsession, doors will start to open for you where there were once only walls. And even if you never make a dime doing what you love, just imagine the legacy you’ll create by making it your primary focus.

It could take you weeks or even years to nail down your One Thing. You’ll probably revise it a few times before you get it right. That’s okay.

Even a year’s worth of searching will be more than worth it if the rest of your life becomes more productive and meaningful.

If you need to take a few days off and go to a quiet place with a pen and some sheets of paper, DO IT. I suggest you stay off the internet while doing this. And don’t ask anyone what they think you should do. You’ll never find your life’s purpose by asking someone else what they think.

Regardless of what your One Thing is, YOUR heart already knows. It will likely reveal the answer in the form of a deep desire. Sometimes you just have to shut down the noise so you can hear it.

Get started on this step first. It’s the ONLY one of the five you can’t afford to skip. In fact, if you think you’re too busy for it, I guarantee it’s because you don’t know your One Thing yet. Once you have a general idea of what it will be, here’s the next step…

#2: Plan, Execute, Connect

Productive people don’t just sit down and do things. They’re careful planners and they know how and when to ask for help. Those are the three components of superior productivity…

  1. Planning: creating, analyzing and refining your method of doing things.
  2. Connection: connecting with people who will help you advance your goals.
  3. Execution: working on your projects WITHOUT interruptions.

The smartest way to do a superior job at ALL three of these is to set aside a specific time block for each one. I suggest following the 80/20 rule, like so…

  1. Planning: 10% of your time creating, analyzing and refining your method of doing things.
  2. Connection: 10% of your time connecting with people who will help you advance your goals.
  3. Execution: 80% of your time working on your projects WITHOUT interruptions.

So if you only have 10 hours a week to work on your One Thing, your time blocks might look like this…

  1. Planning: One hour (10%) creating, analyzing and refining your method of doing things.
  2. Connection: One hour (10%) connecting with people who will help you advance your goals.
  3. Execution: Eight hours (80%) working on your projects WITHOUT interruptions.

And your weekly schedule might look like this…

  1. Planning: One hour (10% of your time) on Sunday morning between 7am and 8am.
  2. Connection: One hour (10% of your time) on Monday morning between 7am and 8am.
  3. Execution: Eight hours (80% of your time) on Tuesday – Friday evenings between 6pm and 8pm.

Now, you can’t parse this out however you need to. As long as you block things according to the three components: planning, connection and execution. I’ll show you why that’s important in a moment.

First, let’s take a concrete example…

Imagine you’ve just picked your One Thing. You’ve decided to become a writer and to start a blog like this one. In the beginning, you’ll want to spend most of your time planning. You’ll also want to hold off on promoting your blog to people. So, assuming you have ten hours a week, your schedule might look like this in the beginning…

  1. Planning: Four hours (40% of your time) on Tuesday – Friday evenings between 6pm and 7pm.
  2. Connection: One hour (10% of your time) on Monday evening between 7pm and 8pm.
  3. Execution: Five hours (50% of your time) on Monday – Friday mornings between 6am and 7am.

How to write sales copyTaking these one at a time, you might spend your four hours on Tuesday – Friday evenings reading and researching the best way to get your blog up on the internet. You might also want to spend that time figuring out what topic you’ll be blogging about. That takes care of your planning time.

Next, you might spend your one hour of connection time, on Monday evening, talking to another successful blogger. Or, if you’re smart, you’ll spend some of that time interacting with your future readers on a forum, a Social Media site or a Q & A site. After all, the most important thing a writer can do is understand their audience’s interests AND reading preferences. 

Finally, you might spend your five hours of execution time practicing your writing skills. This is a good habit to form, even if you’ve been writing for years. The same is true for anything else in life. People who master their craft have a greater capacity for self-expression and a MUCH better chance at making an impact in the marketplace.

If you stick with this schedule, you’ll soon be able to move on to something like this…

  1. Planning: One hour (10%) on Sunday evening between 6pm and 7pm.
  2. Connection: Two hours (20%) on Monday & Thursday evenings between 7pm and 8pm.
  3. Execution: Seven hours (70%) EVERY morning between 6am and 7am.

You might wonder why you’d still need time for planning. Wouldn’t it be smarter to spend that time writing or connecting with your readers? That depends on how effective you want to be during your connection and execution times. If you spend all your time executing and connecting, you’ll no doubt be a more productive. At least in the beginning.

But the more productive you are, the more likely you’ll be to make mistakes. And if you spend no time analyzing these mistakes, they’ll pile up and multiply until they crystallize into bad work habits that are VERY hard to break. This is especially true for the mistakes that seem minor at first.

But, if you set aside even an hour a week to analyze your mistakes, to learn from them and to refine your approach, those mistakes will become learning experiences. People who take the time to do this are dramatically more productive than those who don’t. More importantly, they learn to multiply their successes and to “domino” small opportunities into enormous ones. We’ll talk more about that in a moment.

The important point now is to carve out a SEPARATE block of time for planning. Ordinary people assume they don’t have  time to do this. They work feverishly towards their goals without stopping to analyze their methods. Ironically, they end up wasting more time and energy doing things the hard way and/or correcting mistakes.

Over time, they become less efficient, less confident, more stressed out. They also fail to turn small opportunities into bigger ones, which is the single biggest secret to extraordinary success. All because they neglect the habit of careful planning. Don’t be one of these people.

Smart planning, connection and execution is the second most important difference (the One Thing, above, being the first) between ordinary people and super productive people. You’ll realize this the moment you start doing this for yourself. And if you follow these next three steps, you’ll be amazed at how productive you’ll become…

#3: Protect Your Workspace From ALL Forms of Interruption

Interruption is the NUMBER ONE ENEMY of productivity. Every time you’re interrupted, your brain has to “change gears” to deal with the interruption. Once the interruption is handled, your brain has to change gears AGAIN to refocus your attention on the original task. Most people dramatically underestimate how erosive this is to the volume AND quality of their work.

You’ve probably read the studies about how people on drugs are more effective than people who are constantly being interrupted. What you might not know is that if ANYTHING in your work space gives you even the OPTION of being interrupted, your brain will process it as a distraction.

For example, if you’re in the middle of execution time and your phone is on, or your email is open, or if people are walking by your desk, you’re already in a state of distraction. The same is true for multitasking.

Anytime you try to do several things at once, you put your brain in a state of distraction. Whether you think you can handle this or not, the volume AND the quality of your work will STILL suffer. Let me give you one example before I show you just how bad this is for your long term success.

In his book “The Shallows – What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains,” author Nicholas Carr points to a study which revealed that even HYPERLINKS (<- that word contains a hyperlink) eat away at a reader’s ability to focus. The study had participants read online texts which contained hyperlinks. After this, the readers were asked to complete a simple reading comprehension test.

Next, the same readers were asked to read online texts which did NOT contain hyperlinks. And again, they were asked to complete a simple reading comprehension test. Amazingly, the readers’ comprehension levels were dramatically lower even when they didn’t click ANY of the hyperlinks. This is a stunning example of how even the OPTION of being interrupted consumes your mental energy.

This doesn’t just apply to online reading comprehension either. Similar studies have shown that our brains make similar sacrifices when anticipating ANY kind of interruption. This means your phone, your email, your Social Media accounts, your open office door, even the post it notes on your desk and the calendar on your desk.

Every potential interruption eats away at your productivity like a rat chewing through a steel pipe. And that’s not all. If you spend enough time in this state of distraction, your brain will literally REWIRE iteself to behave as if it were in that state – even when it has nothing to do. Think about that.

Ever been reading a book and felt the urge to check your email or your text messages or see what people are posting on Facebook? Ever had that happen when you were talking to a friend, having dinner with your spouse or watching your kid’s baseball game?

That’s your brain doing what you’ve trained it to do. And every time you check your text, your email or your Facebook account in anticipation of the next distraction, your brain rewards you with a release of the dopamine hormone.

That dopamine release is what makes this behavior so addictive. And chemically and neurologically, the addiction to distraction just like any other addiction. So if you’re in the habit of multitasking or giving people unvetted access to you while you’re working, prepare for a few weeks of withdrawal as you start to work your schedule this way…

  • Planning: hide and/or shut down EVERYTHING that gives you the option to connect or to execute.
  • Connection: hide and/or shut down EVERYTHING that gives you the option to plan or execute.
  • Execution: hide and/or shut down EVERYTHING that gives you the option to plan or connect.

For example, if you’re in the middle of your planning time, shut down EVERYTHING that gives you the option to execute your projects or to connect with other people. This means turn off your phone (not to vibrate, off), shut down your computer, go into a room by yourself and shut the door. Put on a pair of headphones if it helps you focus. Instrumental music is best.

Do the same during your connection time. Put your planning materials away and hide or shut down ANYTHING that tempts you to work on your projects. No matter who you’re talking to, give them your undivided attention. If you can’t get anything done because too many people are demanding your time and attention, start setting some boundaries.

Since that’s ^ a topic for another blog, which I haven’t yet written, I’ll recommend Henry Cloud’s book “Boundaries,” and move on to execution.

Your execution time is the most important time to shut out ALL interruptions. Make your workspace a private room where you can shut the door or even lock it. Leave your phone outside and turn it completely off so you can’t hear it. Log out of your email, your Facebook account and disarm ANYTHING that has a pop-up alert or a chime to tell you when you have a message.

If you can find a way (during your planning time) to execute your projects without connecting to the internet, do it. The most productive people I know do their work either completely away from a computer or on a computer that has no internet access.

Finally, tell anyone who might interrupt you not to come to the door unless the building is on fire. Do this BEFORE you start working.

I know this is hard if you have children, employees, coworkers or a spouse who doesn’t understand boundaries. But if you’ve chosen your One Thing wisely, fulfilling it could be the greatest gift you’ll ever give them.

If they don’t see it this way, maybe they’ve seen you start and give up too many times. If so, you’ll have to prove your commitment through consistent action before they take you seriously. Other people might too envious or self-centered to respect your time. I’ll let you decide how to deal with those people.

But don’t ever let another person’s whims take priority over your life’s purpose. Most likely, they aren’t fulfilling their life’s mission because they’re too distracted. Stick with your no interruptions rule and make it a consistent habit. In time, people will come to respect and even admire you for it. Then, you can apply these final two habits and dramatically multiply your productivity AND self-confidence…

#4: Do The Minimum On Horrible Days

Everyone has horrible days. I’m not talking about days when you don’t feel like working. I’m talking about days when you’re doing your best and everything is falling apart quicker than you can even hold it together.

I’m talking about days when, the harder you press in and try to turn things around, the more mistakes you make and the more frustrated, anxious and self-conscious you become. The smartest thing you can do on such days is quit.

If you’re an ambitious person who likes to press through adversity, this might not make sense. But think about it. Why train your mind and body to be anxious and inefficient while doing the One Thing you hope to become awesome at?

You’ve heard the saying “practice makes perfect.” As someone who has learned to play several musical instruments and taught other people to do the same, I can tell you that this is simply NOT true. Great practice makes for great performance. But horrible practice makes for horrible performance.

There’s absolutely no way around this. Every action you take creates and/or reinforces neurological patterns in your brain. Your brain doesn’t evaluate these patterns by saying “I wonder if we meant to do it that way.” It simply stores the memory of those inefficient actions, along with ALL the negative emotions associated with them.

So every time you push yourself to keep working on your horrible days, you literally train yourself to suck at something you’re supposed to be getting good at. You also train yourself to be stressed out, anxious and insecure while working on it. If you keep this up, you’ll start having more horrible days than good ones. In time, you’ll learn to dread the thought of working on your projects.

And for what? To squeeze in a few extra hours of “work,” on a day when you’re not getting anything done anyway? There’s a fine line between persistence and block-headed stubbornness.  Learn to recognize when you’re about to cross it and stop. As long as you practice this fifth and final habit, you’ll MORE than make up for the time you miss by quitting on your horrible days…

#5: Do The MAXIMUM On Your Awesome Days

Everyone has at least one AMAZING day a year. Athletes and sales people call this experience “being in the zone.” It’s hard to describe what this feels like. But I know you’ve experienced it at least once in the past 18 months.

When you’re in the zone, everything you do is smooth, effortless, precise and efficient. You feel larger than life; ten feet tall, bulletproof, faster than a speeding bullet and just oozing with awesomeness.

The smartest thing you can do when you’re working this well is to keep working. Work until you either HAVE to quit, or until you’ve squeezed as much awesomeness as possible out of the day. It’s impossible to exaggerate how quickly this will skyrocket your skill level and your confidence.

Remember, every action you take creates and/or reinforces neurological patterns in your brain. Your brain doesn’t evaluate these patterns by saying “that was awesome, but we can’t be this awesome all the time.” It simply stores the memory of those actions, along with ALL the positive emotions associated with them.

In other words, every time you push yourself to keep working on your awesome days, you literally train yourself to BE awesome at whatever you’re doing. You also train yourself to feel confident and self-assured while you’re doing it. Most important, if you keep this up, you’ll start having more awesome days than average ones. And therein lies is the secret key to becoming a world-class performer.

During my coaching career, I had the opportunity to work with dozens of world-class athletes and entrepreneurs. I worked with others who were good at what they did, but not quite in the top 1%. I’m 100% convinced that the most important difference between these two is the number of awesome days they have in a year.

Even average performers have one or two awesome days a year. Good performers have one or two of them a month. But world-class performers have awesome days almost every day. What most people NEVER realize is that they could have just as many awesome days if simply trained their mind and body to have them.

For example, if a sales person who only has one awesome day every six months trains himself to have three or four of them a week, he/she could go from earning only $50k a year to earning millions.

An ammeter baseball player who only has a few awesome days a year could become a professional player with a six or seven figure salary, simply by training himself to have four or five awesome days a week.

The same is true in every profession and every field of achievement. Practically anyone enjoying average success can become a top performer, even a world-class performer, simply by training themselves to have more of awesome. The smartest way to do this is to form the habit of quitting on horrible days while doing as much as possible on awesome days.

You can do the same. And since you’ve been diligent enough to read this far, I’ll give you one more tip for making it happen…


Bonus Habit: Two Questions To Ask During Your Planning Time

During your planning time, make a habit of asking yourself two questions…

  1. What caused me to have that horrible day?
  2. What caused me to have that awesome day?

Whether you had a horrible day, or an awesome one, 99% of the time, SOMETHING caused it. Maybe it was something you did. Maybe it was something that happened to you. Either way, find out what caused it and start…

  1. Avoiding things that cause you to have horrible days.
  2. Maximizing things that cause you to have awesome days.

This is so simple, yet so powerful. If you had a horrible day, maybe you slept too much or too little the day before. Maybe you ate something that screwed up your hormones. Maybe you checked your email first thing in the morning instead of spending that time in prayer or meditation.

The point is that everyone has “triggers” for good performance and for bad performance. Sometimes these triggers are so subtle, you don’t notice them until you ask yourself the above two questions.

Nevertheless, once you discover your triggers, you simply do less of the things which cause you to have horrible days and more of things which cause you to have awesome days.

If you can’t find these triggers by asking yourself the above two questions, ask someone who lives with you or who sees you every day. I’ve had a lot of success with this. My wife has a spooky ability to notice how even my subtlest actions impact the quality of my workday and mental states. If you have a friend or a spouse who knows you this well, get them to help you.

So those are your five steps to superior productivity…

  1. Pick Your One Thing
  2. Plan, Connect & Execute
  3. Protect Your Workspace from Interruptions
  4. Do the Minimum On Horrible Days
  5. Maximize Your Awesome Days

Imagine the incredible potential you’ll unleash by doing all five of these. Imagine the impact on your self-confidence and your mental and emotional health. Imagine the people you’ll inspire and motivate to become the best THEY can be. Or, you can stop imagining, close this page and go get started right now. Make it count.

-Stay Awesome

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