When I was in university, I spent much of my time figuring out how to maximize my study time. How could I improve my focus? Learn problems and concepts quicker? Understand the material better so I could get a better grade?
Not much changed when I graduated. I went straight into the world of startups and entrepreneurship, where the problem is less about how to be productive—though this is still crucial—and more about what to work on.
What follows is the list of the most impactful habits I’ve developed after years of trying every productivity tip and tool I could find. Some have stuck, and others haven’t, and I’ve come to realize what has the most impact.
The Big Productivity Tips
We’ll start with the big ones. If you don’t nail these, it’s going to be very hard to maintain any level of performance over the long term.
Sure, you can keep it up for a while, but at some point you’ll burn out, and you won’t have built the basics required to remain productive for years on end.
Master these, and you’ll know yourself better. You’ll be able to sprint when you need to, and recognize when you need to pull back and recharge. This is a skill you can use both day-to-day and over decades.
Get enough sleep: This is the starting point. Without enough sleep, you’ll get fat, sick, and blurry, and unable to do much of anything. Getting 8 hours per night (which requires more like 9 hours in bed) still leaves 15-16 hours every day, which is plenty.
There is a small segment of the population, ~1%, who can thrive on as little as 4 hours of sleep a night. I’ve met a few of them. But I am not one of them, and it’s unlikely you are either.
If you aren’t, you need to be getting good sleep at least 5 days a week to perform at your best.
And you can’t take two nights off in a row and expect to perform both days either.
Wake up early: The unfortunate reality of our world today is that most jobs are around 9-5. That means you have two options to find uninterrupted time: before 9am, or after 5pm. You can have a little of both if you want, but not a lot, because that would impact your sleep.
For most people, establishing the habit of getting up early will be better for a few reasons.
First of all, I think more people do better in the mornings than in the evenings.
Second, there is something rewarding about being up before everyone else. Getting your day started before everyone else becomes the first win of the day.
Being serious about building the habit of getting up early also means you’re going to need to say no to some evening activities which are detrimental to both health and sleep (like drinking), so that’s another side benefit too.
So how do you build the habit of getting up early?
Go to bed early: To get up early, you need to go to bed early. It’s that simple. If I start sleeping past my wake time, or feeling drowsy in the morning, I overcorrect, go to bed super early, and I’m back on track in 1-2 nights.
Remember, time in bed isn’t all time asleep. Most of us need minimum 9 hours in bed each night. My ideal schedule is something like 9pm-6am, but it will vary for others.
Something like 10pm-6am means you’re probably getting enough sleep, but not the full amount required, so you may need to make some up on the weekends.
Anything less and you’ll start to see performance decline after two nights.
Eat healthy: Eating “healthy” is a complicated topic with all kinds of opinions, nuances, fads, and complications…if you want it to be. In reality, it’s very simple:
- Aim for high protein, low carb
- Eat lots of veggies, some with every meal
- Avoid drinking calories
- Avoid eating within 3 hours of bedtime (it will impact sleep)
- Eat as many raw, fresh foods as possible (avoid processed food)
Exercise daily: It can be as simple as walking to work, or 30 minutes at the gym, or a bike ride through town. Make exercise a regular part of your life and both your mental and physical health will thank you.
Being physically healthy is going to help you think better, get sick less, and get more done over the long term.
No one is perfect. But you should know if you’re doing well:
- Do you feel healthy?
- Are you overweight?
- Could you go play a game of pickup soccer at the park?
- What percentage of “poor” meals do you eat?
If you can nail all the items above, you’re on a good path to being productive over the long term.
Hydrate first: We’re all dehydrated in the morning, which makes drowsiness persist longer than it should. Make it ice water for an even better wakeup, and add some protein and you can skip breakfast.
Caffeinate at least 1 hour after waking: My old habit was to make a coffee first thing, and while it still tastes great, the effect of the caffeine is moderated by the cortisol in our bodies wearing off after sleep. Wait at least an hour for your first coffee to maximize the caffeine hit.
Stand up: Sitting at a desk creates poor posture and stifles movement. Stand up at a desk instead. Get a standing desk, or a computer stand to make your normal desk a standing one. I worked at a cardboard standing desk for years.
Make sure you get a memory foam mat to stand on—this makes a big difference in how your knees feel and how long you can stand without sitting.
Also, moving around is normal! Lean on the desk, stand on one leg, switch to the other, sit down for a little while—it’s all good. It’s the movement and the improved posture that matters.
It’s also much harder to feel drowsy while standing.
Focus on one thing per day: Whenever I build my plan for the day, I ask myself one question: “If I only got one thing done today, what would I be happy with?” Or, in other words, “what single task is the most important on my list?”
That should be your aim every day. Finish, or at least work on, your most important task. Do a couple hours of dedicated focus work on your most important task each day and you’ll be ahead of 99% of the crowd.
Stick with one thing to completion: Once you’ve chosen that one task, focus only on that task until you’re finished.
Stopping and starting a task adds a huge amount of time to finishing it. We underestimate how much time it takes to ramp up and get started on a task each time we’ve put it down for a while.
And if we do manage to get started and get in the zone—or in “flow”—that’s when we’re most productive. Breaking that flow has a big cost too.
Add social pressure: Open offices are good for this, if they’re not too distracting. If you know your colleagues can see what’s on your screen, you’re a lot more likely to focus on your work.
If you are working from home, pairing up with one or two other people and sharing your screens can be a great way to simulate the office effect while remote.
Once you get good at getting started and remaining focused on your most important task, you can work from home or in a less public environment.
Turn on Do Not Disturb: I have Do Not Disturb on by default during workdays, all the time. No exceptions. This depends on your role, but there is rarely anything that urgent for me. If I leave them off, there are constant distractions and I’m shooting myself in the foot.
Put headphones in: Even if you don’t listen to music, over-ear headphones or noise-cancelling earphones are a great way to block out distractions. If you’re in a busy office, it’s also a good way to signal to others that you’re focusing and don’t want to be disturbed.
Use music with no lyrics: Lyrics are distracting, just like conversations around you can be. Some people can still focus, but why add another distraction? Brain.fm is a great resource for this kind of music.
Keep snacks & water: When you do manage to get focused and in the zone, the last thing you want is to need to step away because you’re hungry or thirsty. Keep some snacks and water by your side so you can stay in the zone for however long you need.
Schedule small task time: Small tasks are things that aren’t your most important task, and don’t take much time. Putting time in your schedule for them is a great way to avoid getting distracted when they come up. Putting that time at the end of the week is a good way to finish up, and prevent you from wasting time on them throughout the week.
Write thoughts down: When small tasks or ideas pop into your head, write them down. That way you can stop thinking about them, and continue focusing on your main task. If you don’t, they’re likely to keep popping up in your thoughts and distracting you. Make a list and you can think about them later.
Time-box version one: If you had to leave on vacation tomorrow, you’d find a way to get your work done. Try and put that pressure on yourself anyway. It might not be as polished as you want, or as complete as you want, but setting a time limit on your first draft is a great way to force yourself to get something across the finish line (even if it needs tweaking later).
Talk to yourself: Cheerlead yourself. When I’m struggling to get started on something, I’ll say to myself “Get started!” to remind myself that’s the hardest part, and I just need to dive in. “Don’t get distracted!” or even “You can do this!” are great too. You should be your own best cheerleader. It’s surprising how much of a difference that kind of positive self-talk can make.
Working With Others
Remove meetings: Meetings can be valuable. But recurring meetings rarely are, and if they’re related to your most important work, you shouldn’t be waiting for a recurring time slot for them anyway. Opt out of as many meetings as you can and ask for the summary or action items after.
If you’re a manager, record key meetings in case you need to share something later. Establish a habit of asking people to be detailed when they add special topics to the agenda, or to share asynchronously instead. Use tools like Loom or Quicktime to record screenshares with audio, letting people share without forcing a specific meeting time on everyone.
The actual time of a meeting isn’t the only cost, either. It interrupts what might otherwise be a big focus slot, which is extremely detrimental to productivity.
Group meetings: If you do need meetings, try to schedule them all together. The worst case scenario for productivity is a bunch of meetings with 30-60 minutes in between. It’s not enough time to get going on a task before being interrupted again.
Try to group them during times you’re less productive too, so you can save your best time for your most important work.
Ignore Slack/email/chat: Turn off your notifications, and try to avoid checking these services unless absolutely necessary. Choose one or two times a day to check these for anything important, and ignore them otherwise.
Set expectations with your colleagues, or set up auto-responders to let people know that you don’t check things often.
Create a recurring calendar event during your most productive time (Do Not Book): For me, this is mornings, and I have at least 2 events per week where I book out 2-4 hours of “Do Not Book” time. During these slots I auto-decline meetings and tell others to reach out to me beforehand if they do want to use that time. It sets expectations, and helps keep some consistent periods free for your most important work.
Share early: Try to make a personal habit, and build it among your colleagues, of sharing your work early. You can preface it with “This is only a first draft!” and ask for feedback.
A lot of the time, they’ll say “This is awesome!” and you’re done. Other times, they’ll say “Oh, this isn’t what I was thinking at all!” and you’ll be able to course-correct much faster than you would have otherwise.
Either way, sharing early can net you a bunch more time, and will often produce much better work in the end, than if you try and perfect something on your own.
There is no single productivity hack that will transform your output.
If I had to choose one, I’d say it’s the ability to choose your most important task, and sit down and dedicate an extended period of time to working on it, over and over.
But being truly productive is a constant struggle to build, improve, and iterate on your daily habits, depending on your personal circumstances, which are bound to change.
Keep what works, discard what doesn’t, and constantly ask yourself: “Is this the single most important thing for me to work on?”