The 8 Habits of Highly Productive People

Productive people are conscious of how they spend their time

What do you define as a “productive” person? Is it the ability to robotically churn out work, hour after hour? Is it the amount of discipline one has? Is it the speed at which one works?

Before we can discuss what makes a productive person, we should first define what productivity is. The common notion of productivity is the ability to churn out a lot of work in a short span of time. True, but not complete. IMO, true productivity is the ability to create a lot of high impact work in a short span of time. This is the kind of productivity we should concern ourselves with, not other kinds of productivity which are more empty / busy work that create no impact in the long term.

For example, let’s say Peter types very fast and can reply 1000 emails a day. That doesn’t make him/her productive, because there’s little output (product) to speak of (unless the emails contribute to tangible, high impact outcomes). However, if John completes just one task in a day that has more impact than the 1000 emails put together, then he’s more productive than Peter is.

The past few months have been my most productive months for the year. I ran/spoke at a total of 8 workshops/speeches, including one in Hong Kong last month. My latest workshops have drawn in the highest number of participants to date. I created and ran 30DLBL, the first ever 30-day personal development challenge of its kind online, and had the honor of running it with over 1,200 of you in this special journey. I wrote, did the design and launched 30DLBL Program (both guidebook and workbook), which has sold over 200 700 copies (as of Aug ’12)! Personal Excellence grew almost double in subscribers from Sep through Dec (just 3 months), from 9k to over 18k, making it one of the biggest personal development blogs online today.

At the same time, I’ve also been managing other work, such as 1-1 coaching with clients (I’m handling about 5-6 clients on average at each time), administrative aspects of the business, writing Personal Excellence articles/guest posts, maintaining the site, etc.

A few days ago I finished designing my lineup of workshops next year, and earlier this week I conceptualized the idea for a new book. That’s all while maximizing other aspects of my life, such as keeping to my exercise regime (I exercise daily now), having a positive social life, keeping in touch with old friends, all at the same time.

I think productivity is really how you manage yourself, and the habits you practice. By selectively practicing certain habits over others, you can get a lot more output for your time. Here, I’ll share with you my 8 top habits in productivity. Practice them and watch as your productivity sky rockets thereafter. :D

Habit 1: Ruthlessly cut away the unimportant (and Focus on the important)

The first habit of productive people is to slice and dice everything that’s unimportant.

Whenever I go to my work desk, I write down a list of things to do for the day. I then evaluate which are the most important things out of the list, first circling them, then ranking the items. After which I’ll challenge these items to see if they’re the best use of my time. What impact does doing these make? Can I be doing more high value tasks? Doing so helps me ensure I’m working on the absolute most important things for the day.

Then, for the non-important ones, I either push them to a later date or find a way to take them off the list. (Learning how to say no to others is very important here.) Those who have the 30DLBL Program might recognize this as the 20/80 List in Day 8. It’s my favorite daily self-management tool.

For everything you’re doing now, ask yourself how important this is. Does this bring you dramatically closer to your dreams? Does this create any real impact in your life in the long term? Is it the absolute best way to spend your time or can you be doing more high value tasks? 

If the answer is ‘yes’ to all the questions, keep this task. If not, perhaps it’s time to ditch it. No point doing something unimportant! Say you’re handling a project that makes no difference to your business after it’s completed. It wouldn’t matter whether you take an hour, three hours, or one week to do it—it’d still make no difference at the end of the day!

It’s part of knowing what your end objective is and doing things that serve this objective. Read: Keep Your End Objective In Mind.

Many people tend to wrongly classify regular tasks as high value tasks. A good tool to set them apart is the Time Management Matrix that classifies our daily activities into 4 different quadrants. Your most important tasks fall under Quadrant 2. I’ve written about it extensively complete with diagrams and recommendations on how to deal with tasks in each quadrant, so read them here: Put First Things First.

Going by the questions I raised above, my most important tasks are the ones that bring me closest to my dreams when I do them. For example, working on my blog allows me to reach out to more people out there, which lets me achieve my end vision of enabling others to achieve their highest potential and live their best life. For you reading this now, I’d like to think that you found this blog partially through my efforts in reaching out to people out there, and partially thanks to the universe. :hug: Thank you for being here at the blog. This is why I prioritize Personal Excellence blog development over all other tasks, such as writing guest articles, getting new speaking engagements, etc. While other tasks help me progress in my goals too, they’re not as effectively as working on my blog.

It doesn’t end with correctly identifying the high value tasks. Often times, we’ll be imbued with a stream of random, miscellaneous requests throughout the day. I used to give immediate attention to these things. Say random request # 1 comes in and I’ll do it immediately since it takes just 5-10 minutes, max. This is the same for random request # 2, #3…. all the way to #20. After a while, I realized these things take a lot of my time and I don’t even get any meaningful result out of them.  Not only that, I never finish my high value tasks. I may think I’m being very productive when I finish the random things, but truth is it’s just fake productivity.

So nowadays, I use a separate “do later” list for these urgent tasks. I dump all the incoming tasks here and work on my 20% high value tasks (that lead to 80% of the value I get in the day). At the end of the day, I allocate a time slot to clear these tasks. I batch the similar urgent tasks, then clear them at one go. Turns out I’m always able to get them cleared in an hour or less, compared to the few hours I’d have taken if I attended to them in the day.

Habit 2: Allocate breaks strategically

The second habit of productive people is to allocate breaks strategically.

I don’t think being productive requires you to work non-stop like a robot. On the contrary, it’s by doing that that you become less productive. While the number of hours spent on work increases and the amount of work accomplished seems marginally higher, the work done per unit time is lower than your average. Not only that, your work done per extra unit time actually decreases.

If you think the above sounds confusing, not to worry! Here’s a simple example to illustrate my point. Say you want to write a book. You can usually type 1,000 words in an hour working on your book. This goes well for the first 2 hours, and you clock 1,000 words per hour. However, at the third hour, you feel tired, and you type 500 words in the third hour instead. That’s -500 words less than your usual output! In Economics, this is known as the Law of Diminishing Returns.

Rest is important. No matter how much you want to work, there are areas of your life that work can’t fulfill, such as love, family, health. That’s why our life wheel is made up of different segments, vs. just 1 big segment. Each segment is distinct and unreplaceable by others. By “rest”, I’m referring to any segment of your life that’s outside of Business/Career/Studies. Taking time off charges your batteries so you can sprint forward when you return to work.

Earlier this year, I did an experiment. I went for a period where I continuously worked without stopping (save for necessary breaks like sleeping, eating, etc). I also went for a separate period where I would work, then space in break times in between work, such as catching up on emails, exercising, walking around the house, reading books, going for a walk, catching up with friends, a short nap, and so on. What I found was this:

Output decreases over time when there are no breaks (despite reaching the point of diminishing returns)

With breaks, the output can be maintained at a consistent high

*Drawings are very empirical, but you get the idea!

What this means is when I work non-stop without any breaks, my productivity keeps slipping until it’s near 0. However, when I take breaks, they help me start on a high note when I get back. Even though there are “down-times” away during the breaks, the high output more than makes up for that. Hence, by strategically placing my break times, I’m able to maximize my output. Rest, hence, does not prevent me from getting more done – it enables me to get more done. More time spent on work does not necessarily lead to more work done, but applying the above strategy AND combining it with increased time spent on work will maximize your output.

If you’re self-employed or on a flexible work schedule, you can put this into practice easily. Even if you’re in a 9-5 job, you can still do it all the time. Whenever you feel unproductive, throw in a quick break. Walk away from the desk, get a drink from the pantry, go for a toilet break, talk to a colleague about work. You’ll be more perked up when you return.

Habit 3: Remove productivity stoppers (i.e. distractions)

The third habit of productive people is to remove productivity stoppers.

Productivity stoppers are things that limit your productivity. They can be the music you listen to when you work, your slow computer, unwanted phone calls, alerts from your inbox on incoming mail, the internet, You Tube, Facebook, Twitter, etc. These things trap you and prevent you from getting things done.

What should you do then? Well, remove these stoppers! Or go to a place where they’re no longer an issue. For example, a big productivity stopper for me is the internet. When I write my articles while online, I have the tendency to click to other sites. I’d check my mail, after which I become distracted by the new mail. The mail would lead to follow-up work and replies, which take time. By the time I’m done, a good 15-20 minutes has passed. Then within minutes of working, the same cycle repeats. So instead, when I’m writing, I unplug the LAN cable from my laptop and move my laptop to my bed (which is what I’m doing now as I’m writing this article). It’s a lot faster!

Go about your daily routine and observe when your output slows down. What’s distracting you? How can you remove it? Experiment and try working in different places. Adjust your environment. Make tweaks here and there. The more productivity stoppers you find and remove, the more productive you’ll be.

Habit 4: Tap into your inspiration

The fourth habit of productive people is to tap into inspiration.

I can’t stress how important this is to maximizing your output. No matter what field you’re in, your inspiration is the key to your output. For example, an inspired programmer creates programs that changes people’s lives for the better. An inspired structural engineer designs effective building structures. An inspired marketer creates breakthrough marketing plans that touches people’s hearts. An inspired writer writes continuously. A highly inspired musician writes one song after another

I fully grasped the impact of inspiration when I started my business and was in charge of my full schedule. I realized during the times when I’m inspired, work is simply effortless. Taking writing as an example. The words will flow and I don’t even need to process them. They get transferred as thoughts in my mind straight to the keyboard. My last article How To Finish What You Start was completed in one night, which is much faster than my normal articles which can take as long as a week (for series posts). That’s because I was very inspired when I was writing it. On the other hand, when I’m uninspired, nothing comes out. It’s like when opening a tap and there’s no water, save for one to two drops.

What do you tap into your inspiration then? Do you just idle, waiting for inspiration to strike before you do any work? That’s allocating your control to your external world, which really isn’t what this blog is about. I often hear people say they’re not planning to write because they’re not inspired. I think it’s not about waiting for inspiration to strike but about learning to channel into your inspiration.

How do you do that? It’s simple – think about what inspires you in life. Is it helping others grow? Connecting with people? Being recognized for your work? Working with the poverty? Helping the unfortunate? Being #1 in your field? How can you achieve them? Find out your motivators, then use them to drive you.

My biggest inspiration is to see others achieving their highest potential and living their best lives. I love seeing everyone living to their highest being, and if there are ever anything blocking them I’ll feel all ready to rip it away, so I use this to drive me in everything I create. When I’m writing a blog entry, I’ll start by thinking what is an area people are facing blockages in, then I channel into that energy.

30DLBL was created because I noticed while many people pursue self-help, not many know how to translate what they read into practice. I got inspired to create a personal development program which would encapsulate my best strategies and lessons on how to live our best life. This program would consist of a series of tasks, at a manageable pace of one task a day, which would both trigger immediate action and create tangible results. And hence, 30DLBL was born.

Habit 5: Create barriers to entry

The fifth habit of productive people is to create barriers to entry.

A great thing about our world today is that it’s easier than ever to reach out to someone. Everyone is just a sms/phone call/email/Facebook message away. At the same time it has become a highly distracting place to live in. Every few minutes, there’s a new request coming in. Your phone rings and it’s a telemarketer; You get an sms from a friend who’s bored at work; You get a new email and it’s some unrelated, unimportant mail; You get a Facebook mass events invite from someone you don’t know; Your calendar sends an alert about an appointment you already know… the list goes on.

There are constantly messages coming from all different directions, shouting for your attention. Each one of them serves an agenda that’s not yours. And every time you pay attention to them, you’re distracted from doing what matters… to you.

What do you do then? To get real work done, I recommend you put up barriers, so it’s hard(er) to reach you. Unplug your phone, switch off your phone, close off your inbox, set a personal rule where you only reply to emails after X days. I’m not saying disappear from the face of the earth, but do that during your work hours at least, especially when you’re working on an intense project. After a while, people will get used to it and adhere to the rule in order to reach you.

For example when I was working on the 30DLBL Program last month, I blocked out my calendar from other appointments. When my friends wanted to meet-up, I explained I was working on an important project and I wouldn’t be free for a few weeks.

On a daily basis, sometimes I’d switch off my phone and only check it at the end of the day to return the messages and calls (my telecom automatically sends a message if there are missed calls while I’m unavailable). I set up my blog contact form as my official contact channel, and funnel the requests through FAQs page which filter out majority of potential requests before they are sent. I still continue to get regular mail, and people who send them know there’s a minimum 5 day lead time (if responses are needed).

(Update Sep ’11: I’ve since shut off my contact form and now encourage all readers to connect with me via my Facebook page instead.)

By making it harder for others to reach you, you filter out a lot of unimportant “noise” from outside, and that lets you work on your Q2 goals (see Habit 1). It’s not about being difficult or putting yourself above others (nothing of this sort) – it’s about focusing on what matters to you and creating real value you want in your life so you can then do the same for others.

Habit 6: Optimize time pockets

The sixth habit of productive people is to optimize time pockets.

Time pockets refer to pockets of time you have in between events. You usually get time pockets when waiting for people, commuting, walking from one place to another, etc.

Look at your schedule. What are the time pockets that can be better utilized? How can you maximize them? Have some ready activities to do during these pockets, such as listening to podcasts, reading books, planning, etc. You will be amazed at how much can be done in just a short amount of time!

For example, I spend a lot of time commuting. Even though I largely work from my home office now, I still commute a fair bit, say when heading out to meet friends, networking, business/lunch/personal appointments, giving workshops, and so on. While I try to schedule them at convenient places, there’s still downtime from walking from one location to the next, waiting for transport, traveling, etc.

So rather than let the time go to waste, I use it to do some work. I bought a smart phone last year (with a QWERTY keypad) so I can type articles on the go. I also acquired a dataplan so I can check my emails wherever I am. Last but not least, I make it a habit to bring a notebook when I go out to jot down ideas.

Amazingly, I’m highly productive during these time pockets. Because there’s nothing else I can do in this 15, 30, 45 minutes, I concentrate fully on what I’m doing. Right now, I’m actually typing this article on my bus ride home. Just a few days ago, I finished creating my 3-months plan from Dec ’10 to Feb ’11, as well as created the idea and book outline for my next book for next year, all while having lunch. That’s a lot of progress compared to if I had just spaced out, slept or idled away the time pockets.

Habit 7: Set timelines

The seventh habit of productive people is to set timelines.

This is a fundamental productivity habit. By Parkinson’s Law, work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. This means if you don’t set a timeline, you can take forever to complete what you’re doing. If you set a timeline of two weeks, you’ll take two weeks. If you set one week, you’ll take one  week. And interestingly enough, if you set one hour, you actually can complete it by one hour too, if you truly want to.

So, set timelines. When you set timelines, you set the intention to complete the work by this time, hence paving the way for the reality to manifest.

I do regular goal setting to maximize my output. The 30DLBL Program was out last month as I had set the timeline for it to be released then. If I hadn’t done so, it would still be in the works, possibly for release this month, next month, or perhaps even never. This month, I’ve timelines for other projects, such as for an upcoming workshop, to start writing my next book, write new articles, have a second anniversary celebration at Personal Excellence (more on that next week!), release Personal Excellence Book version 2, and hit new readership targets at PE.  By virtue of just setting these targets and striving for them, I’m already increasing my productivity compared to if I didn’t set any goals.

Be clear on what you want to achieve (Habit 1), then set your timelines for them. What do you want to finish this month? What will make you look back and think that this is the best way you’ve spent today, and there’s no better way you could have spent it? Set that as your targets. From there, set your weekly goals. Finally, you can set your daily goals which become your day-to-day targets.

Habit 8: Automate everything possible

The eighth and last habit of productive people is to automate everything possible.

Technology today has made automation possible for a lot of things we do. Even when it’s impossible to fully automate the task, we can still use the systems to get a lot of the work done for us.

Keep a record of the things you do today, and see how you can automate them. Some of the not-so-productive tasks that we do on a regular basis are:

  1. Delete, archive, sort our mail
  2. Delete spam mail
  3. Paying our bills
  4. Appointment scheduling
  5. Planning our days/weeks/months (unproductive because it’s still planning vs. acting)

Here is a partial list of things I automate:

  • Mail: I have set up e-mail filters where all site requests and reader mail automatically go into my ‘Reply later’ folder.  I also have filters where newsletters and subscriptions go into different folders depending on what they are about. That way, my only job is to read e-mails and respond where needed, not to sort. (Check out: 11 Simple Tips To Effective Email Management and 3 Simple Tips To Achieve Inbox Zero Using E-mail Filters [Video].)
  • Scheduling: My schedules are somewhat automated. I set recurring items for things I’ve to do daily, weekly or monthly like paying the bills, posting new 30DLBL daily posts (for Dec 30DLBL), exercising (daily), training workshops, etc so I don’t have to worry about them later. It’s not exactly automatic in that I have to first create the entry, but once it’s set I don’t need to do anything about it anymore.
  • Tweeting/Facebook: I automate the tweeting and posting of my new posts. Every time a new post goes live, my twitter will have an announcement, which automatically feeds into my facebook as well
  • Book payments: My book payments are automatic. Whenever someone makes a purchase for one of my books, e-junkie (my payment vendor) will automatically generate an invoice, a download link and a confirmation email and send them to the buyer. The payment is automatically sent to Paypal.
  • Coaching payments: The same goes for my one-to-one coaching, where the payment system is automatic.
  • Coaching schedules: My coaching sessions with each client are set on a fixed day, fixed timing every week. Like #2, I have to first create the entry, but after that it’s automatic. That way we don’t need to arrange for a time slot every week and can get on with the coaching topics.
  • Site maintenance: I’ve set up my blog and forums to be as low maintenance as possible, to the extent where my only involvement is to write/post new content and reply comments. Many things such as the statistics, category count (in the sidebar), etc are automatically generated by WordPress.

I’m continuously looking for ways to automate my process, so I can spend more time on creating value for others rather than being stuck in busy work. By automating your to-do list as much as possible, you reserve your time for the absolute important things. If you get a deja vu feeling when doing something on your task list, that’s a cue to automate that item.

Apply the 8 Habits of Productive People

Which of these eight productivity habits can you apply in your work/life now? Practice the 8 habits of productive people and boost up your productivity immediately.

If you have found this article useful, please share it with others whom you think will benefit. Tweet it, like it via facebook, and share the link to your friends on facebook via the links below.

This article is also available in manifestoweb lecture and audio podcast formats.

Here are other articles in the productivity series you will find useful:

  1. How To Finish What You Start: 10 Important Tips
  2. 11 Simple Tips To Effective Email Management
  3. How To Achieve More with Less in Life via 80/20 Principle (3-part series)
  4. The Best Productivity System There Is
  5. 50 Ways To Boost Your Productivity
  6. Become the Master of Your Time
  7. Put First Things First


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  • Faiza

    Have you looked into Islam as a way of Life? It is specifically meant for people like you…who want to be productive and not waste a single moment of their lives…may God guide you to His way. Amen

    By the Time. Verily man is in loss. Except those who believe and do righteous good deeds, and recommend one another to truth and recommend one another to patience. Quran, 103:1-3

    • Hamza Khurshid

      Yes ISLAM does offer a great lifestyle to live by, and it surely will guide you to peace and contentment and productivity.

      ALL THINGS DEPENDS ON TAKING ACTION !