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How to be Productive — A Comprehensive Guide

Tired of treading water with personal projects or in your professional life? Here’s how to use popular productivity methods to achieve your goals.
by Michael Benninger | Feb 13 2020
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
Annie Dillard

Whether you want to finish a personal project, get a new business off the ground, or simply be better at your job, how you choose to allocate your time, energy, and attention plays a significant role in determining your progress toward achieving your objectives. But actualizing our goals is something many of us struggle with. Despite our best efforts, it can often feel as if we’re getting nowhere.

Can you be more productive?

Fortunately, an avalanche of authors have tackled this topic, and hundreds of books have been published about how to make headway in any area of your life. The methods from many of these titles can be found in the Blinkist app, but we’ve also compiled several of them in this overview of how to be more productive at home, at work, and in all aspects of your life. But, for starters, let’s look at what productivity is — and what it isn’t.

What Is Productivity?

It doesn’t take a linguist to deduce that the word productivity refers to the act of producing something, usually a product or service. However, people often confuse the term with efficiency, or they think it’s synonymous with being busy. In truth, you’re only being productive if what you’re doing directly relates to your greater objective. Otherwise, you’re merely occupying your time with something extraneous. And efficiency specifically refers to the effectiveness with which resources are consumed during a period of productivity.

Time management — the practice of strategically using one’s hours and minutes to achieve maximum productivity — is another term people commonly correlate with productivity, but not everyone needs to focus on the clock in order to get things done. (Just ask Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Work Week.)

While the dictionary definitions of these terms are generally agreed upon, your specific definition of productivity is unique to you depending on your goals. If you want to write a book, for instance, your productivity may be the number of words you write in a day or how many chapters you churn out in a week. Or if you’re a salesperson, you may measure your productivity based on the number of deals you close in a quarter. But regardless of what you are aiming to accomplish, paying attention to your productivity should be a priority.

People have been being productive in one way or another since the dawn of civilization, but the modern definition of the word only dates back a few hundred years. Here’s a quick look at some of the landmark moments in the evolution of personal and professional productivity.

An Abridged Timeline of Modern Productivity

1776 — Economist Adam Smith coins the term “productive labor” in The Wealth of Nations
1791 — Founding father Benjamin Franklin uses a checklist to help shape the United States
1884 — The U.S. Federation of Organized Trades & Labor Unions proposes an 8-hour workday
1850 — Blank day planners become a trendy way for people to keep track of tasks and events
1910Frederick Winslow “Speedy” Taylor becomes the world’s first efficiency expert
1914 — Automaker Henry Ford institutes 8-hour shifts on his company’s assembly line
1916 — Woodrow Wilson signs the Adamson Act into law, establishing the 8-hour workday
1938 — Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the Fair Labor Standards Act, creating several labor laws
1980 — Engineer Bill Smith develops Six Sigma, a corporate methodology to boost productivity
1983Microsoft Word 1.0 and other productivity programs arrive on early personal computers
2006Google Calendar launches, allowing people to easily share their schedules with others
2007 — Apple unveils the iPhone, ushering in a new era of smartphones and productivity apps
2014Voice-activated assistants arrive, promising to help us get more done with less effort

While the concept of productivity is nothing new, the topic has become much more popular in recent years, especially in the wake of the technological boom. Indeed, there are now dozens of different productivity methods for people from all walks of life. And it’s easy to understand why, given the many potential benefits of being productive.

The Importance of Productivity and its Key Benefits

There are plenty of reasons to be productive, ranging from basic survival to becoming a billionaire. Living a productive life can help you provide for your loved ones, create a lasting legacy, or simply achieve more balance in your life. Here are a few other perks you could experience by being more productive.

  • Becoming more productive can help you grow as a leader.
  • Focusing on productivity can help you become better at managing your time.
  • Productivity techniques can help you concentrate and live with less stress.
  • Adopting a productivity method can equip you with a new skill you’ll have for life.
  • Actively trying to improve your productivity can lead you to learn more about yourself.
  • Increasing your productivity can help you find balance and live a more fulfilling life.

Given all the advantages associated with being productive, it’s no wonder it’s such a hot topic. But there’s a fine line between increasing your productivity and falling victim to worker burnout, so it’s important not to go overboard.

The Top Productivity Killers

If the popularity of productivity books is evidence of anything, it’s that modern readers want to get more done during their days. But why do so many people need help focusing on meaningful tasks? What are the common obstacles standing in our way?

Although there are some people who think email, television, and social media are responsible for undermining our productivity, others disagree. Nir Eyal, for instance, the author of Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, argues that technology is a scapegoat, and it’s up to us to step up and take ownership of our responsibilities.

Anxiety, procrastination, and mental fatigue frequently prevent many of us from achieving our goals in a timely manner. More often than not, however, focusing on the wrong tasks is the actual source of our productivity woes. The point is that different influences affect each of us in different ways. Be honest with yourself about what’s standing between you and your objectives, and find a way to overcome what’s preventing your progress.

The Best Books on Productivity

Over the past 30 years, hundreds of productivity books have hit store shelves and appeared online. Many of these books introduce specialized systems designed to help readers achieve their goals. And while many successful individuals credit their prosperity to such systems, no single regimen has proven to be effective for everybody. Similar to how different people learn in different ways, a productivity system that works well for one person might not work at all for another. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of approaches to test out.

Among all of the productivity books that have been published over the years, a few have proven to have a lasting impact on the modern workforce. So to help you turn your aspirations into realities, here’s a look at five popular productivity methods from the industry’s leading get-it-done gurus.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey (1989)

Considered one of the most timeless self-help books ever written, this influential title sparked a productivity phenomenon upon its publication and, to date, it has sold more than 25 million copies. In the book, author Stephen Covey guides readers through the seven principles of effectiveness, which include: (1) be proactive, (2) begin with an end in mind, (3) put first things first, (4) think win-win, (5) seek first to understand, then to be understood, (6) synergize, and (7) sharpen the saw. Covey encourages people to foster a productive yet sustainable lifestyle, that affords them the opportunity to regularly rest so they can remain effective for years to come. You can get an overview of the 7 habits here.

Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen (2001)

The Getting Things Done method, or GTD as it’s commonly known, is designed to help people who juggle multiple tasks use their brains for thinking — instead of for storage. In essence, the system involves first writing down every task you’re responsible for, then breaking those jobs down in smaller, actionable items that are easy to accomplish. Next, split your tasks into categories based on how soon you want to tackle them, making a special note of any items that you’re waiting on someone else for. According to author David Allen, this structure gives users a bird’s-eye view of their workload, allowing them to move through their to-do lists with clarity, control, and confidence.

productivity quotes

Eat That Frog: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time by Brian Tracy (2001)

With a focus on self-motivation and self-reflection, Eat That Frog encourages ambitious individuals to develop an understanding of their work habits and learn to first concentrate on the most meaningful tasks on their to-do list first. The method is rooted in the Pareto Principle, also known as the 80/20 rule, which postulates that 80 percent of an effort’s results directly correspond with 20 percent of the effort invested. In other words, 20 percent of your work will generally equate to 80 percent of your returns. Author Brian Tracy explains how to identify the high-impact tasks in your life, so you can concentrate on them exclusively and forget about everything else. This holistic approach to productivity can help you prioritize your task list and be much more effective at whatever you’re working on.

The Pomodoro Technique: Do More and Have Fun with Time Management by Francesco Cirillo (2009)

This productivity method involves working on tasks in 25-minute bursts followed by 5-minute breaks. The 25-minute periods are referred to as pomodori, the Italian word for tomatoes, and many adherents of this method use tomato-themed timers to stay on track. Here’s how the process works: Start by creating a “to-do today” list of your most pressing tasks, and estimate how many rounds of pomodori you think each task will take. Once you get into the habit of focusing on a task for 25 minutes at a time, the endeavor should begin to feel much more manageable. By becoming better at estimating how much time it will take to complete a task, you’ll develop the ability to set goals for yourself that are actually achievable.

The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande (2009)

Checklists are perhaps the oldest productivity tool still in use today, but not everyone knows how to use them effectively. If the objective you want to achieve involves repeatable tasks, this book can help you increase your efficiency by developing a consistent approach to your workload. Author Atul Gawande explains the finer points of transforming your duties into a series of step-by-step checklists, and he gives readers strategies to tackle projects of any size. He also underscores the fact that it can be easy to overlook simple steps in your work, especially if you’re accustomed to doing the same thing over and over. By adhering to the steps outlined in The Checklist Manifesto, you can complete your tasks more quickly and with fewer mistakes. You can read a more comprehensive list of the best productivity books here.

If you’re ready to embrace a new approach to productivity, Blinkist’s library includes dozens of books that can help you achieve your goals in a way that aligns with your strengths. If any of the aforementioned titles pique your interest, discover their key takeaways today. Or, if you want to check out more of today’s most popular productivity methods, explore the bevy of other books in our library.

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