Since I never liked wasting time or working just to get enough hours in, I read and experimented a lot around this topic in the past few years. I want to use my time efficiently so I can do more of what I care most about. I also want to do great work when I work and not half-ass it. During those years in the fascinating, useful, and sometimes toxic personal productivity space, I found some fundamental principles that worked consistently for myself and others. What follows is my 80/20 guide for individual productivity.
Formula For Productivity
This is my formula for individual productivity:
(Energy x Motivation) / Friction = Individual Productivity
Let’s break it down.
Individual Productivity – The extent to which a person is putting their abilities to the most effective use.
Energy – How high and stable is your energy level over time?
Motivation – How emotionally invested are you in the task at hand?
Friction – Are there any obstacles that stand in your way and make your work harder?
If your energy is high and stable over time but you’re not invested in the task at hand, you wont be motivated and use your skills or energy to the best of your ability.
If you’re motivated but your energy is low or crashing after some time, you’ll put out less and/or worse work.
Lastly, both energy and motivation are discounted by friction. You can have the highest energy and motivation in the world, but if you’re trying to solve a complicated math problem in the middle of a construction site things get difficult fast.
Let’s zoom in on these factors and look at some best practices on how to maximize Individual Productivity.
How to Keep Energy High and Stable
There are things you do that impact your energy level down the line and things you can do to push your energy in the short term (e.g. caffeine). But if you want to keep your energy level high and stable short-term measures don’t work since you’ll just pay the price later. The following points are not new but they’re fundamental and as we know, the fundamentals are the most important.
Get enough of it. What does that mean for you? For the optimal quantity, a robust way is to sleep until you wake up naturally without an alarm. This only holds true if there are no external factors like light or sounds to wake you up, of course. For good quality sleep, it’s a bit harder. I personally use an Oura ring to keep an eye on that, but jotting down how energetic you feel in a notebook throughout the day works too. If quality is low try out some of the common sleep improvement suggestions out there:
- Sleep in a dark, cool room
- Use white noise or other sleep sounds
- Meditate before sleep
- Avoid drinking caffeine past 2pm and drink calming herbal teas in the evening
I’m even less qualified to talk about this aspect than sleep. It’s hard to get reliable information on this topic since there are a lot of bad studies out there that cherrypick data or lack methodological rigor. Often it’s also ignored that correlation is not causation when interpreting those studies. My suggestion is again to experiment with different diets and food groups and see how it impacts your short- and long-term energy levels. Some people perform better on low-carb, others on balanced macros. Try stuff out and see for yourself. I personally think basing your diet largely on the robust principle of paleo seems to be the safest bet.
- Foods that were around for a long time and which our bodies are most likely to be adapted to
- Natural Foods, as in non-processed or only processed by yourself
- Lots of healthy fats and leafy greens
- Fast occasionally
- Avoid poisonous things like sugar and alcohol
Carbohydrates create fluctuating energy levels. In general, the whiter the carb, the stronger the effect. Hence, you should limit carb consumption during times where you want to have high and stable energy levels.
The easiest way to stick to a diet is to eliminate other options. This can be done by throwing out the “bad” stuff from your fridge and habituating your food choices. A standard grocery shopping list helps with that.
If you’re a knowledge worker you’re not moving enough. No, going to the gym four times a week doesn’t solve this problem either. It’s not about burning calories, it’s about avoiding locked body positions and keeping up a good blood flow. Try it out for yourself: Compare a day in the office where you only get up for lunch and maybe a coffee once with a day where you get up from your desk every 40 minutes or so, walk around a bit, maybe do some stretches of calisthenics exercises. It’s night and day for your energy level.
The good thing is this isn’t even hard. Together with the next point, it can become a habit fast.
Take regular breaks. Take your eyes off the screen, let your mind wander, and do something non-mentally challenging for about 5 minutes. That’s already enough and makes the difference between good and mediocre decision making, feeling slightly tired at the end of a workday or burnt out. A 5-minute break every 40 minutes is all it takes. Combine it with some movement and you’ll be amazed how your energy level changes.
Somehow it became a status symbol to be able to slog through hours of meetings without taking a break. People see someone chained to their desk all day and say “what a hard worker!”. If you join one of these meetings after a while, or you talk to your fellow desk slave after you’ve just had a coffee break, you’ll notice how slow and distracted their thinking is. Rather than proving that you’re a hard worker, prove that you’re a smart one.
The second piece to the puzzle is motivation, or the drive behind your work. Unsurprisingly, with high motivation you use more of your mental capabilities, overcome obstacles like procrastination faster and ultimately, are more productive.
Nick Winter wrote The Motivation Hacker solely on this topic, so if you want to dive deeper here, that book is a good start. I’ll focus on the factors I think are most important.
Regular Continuous Wins
Winning on a continuous basis increases motivation and makes you more likely to win again. Winning in that context means achieving your goals and getting done what you want to get done. There are multiple psychological concepts behind this, I’ll introduce two big ones.
The first is part of every habit tracker app out there and used heavily in gaming: we love streaks and don’t want to break them. This is motivation via negativa, meaning, we don’t want a winning streak to end, so we just keep on playing. In a casino, this is bad and usually relieves us of our money at some point. However, in a working scenario, you want to keep moving things forward and want to keep going for those wins.
The next concept is momentum. It’s a curious thing, when you sit on a comfortable couch in front of the TV, standing up is hard. Conversely, if you run about 2 km you almost need to exert some effort to stop running. There is almost an invisible force pulling you forward. It seems to be always easier to keep doing what we’re doing. Changing our ways inevitably leads to psychological and physical resistance from our bodies.
But this also inevitably means that once we do change, it suddenly is hard to go back to our old way of doing things. You can use this to your advantage. Building momentum makes change almost easy, and automatically profits from a compound effect that increases your results more than you thought possible.
How to Win More Often
To incorporate more winning in your life, listen to this every morning. Nah, I’m kidding. You can implement productive habits on a macro level and on a micro, adapt how you set goals while working.
You can define some habits that keep you productive and use a habit tracker (or simply a physical calendar where you can check habits off each day) to create streaks for your productivity habits. The most beneficial habit here is to work on your most important project every day. If you do that you’re already having a win day by day and also make sure that you work on the most important thing daily.
When working, set small, achievable goals you can reach with a high confidence level. For every 30-40 min work block, define what you want to finish in that time. Set a clear and, if possible, a measurable goal. That way you’ll very likely have multiple small wins every day and create unstoppable momentum.
The second factor for increasing your motivation is emotional involvement. How strongly are you emotionally involved in what you are doing? Consider two employees that work in a startup that offers renewable energy solutions. One employee is passionate about solving the climate crisis and creating a better world for her children. The other doesn’t really care and is only interested in the paycheck. It isn’t rocket science who’s more likely to produce better work.
You can’t really fake this aspect of motivation. However, I think you can still influence it by reminding yourself of the “why” and by connecting more to the impact of your work.
Reminding yourself is easy, for every task you do, ask yourself “why is this important?”. Force yourself to consider this question and write it down for every task. It will only take about two minutes and will connect you to emotionally to the “why” and as a very nice side effect you’ll discover tasks that are not essential, and you might want to skip. It’s highly productive to not do unimportant work.
The second thing you can do is connecting more to the impact of your work. Connect with your customers, readers, followers, etc. and see first hand what impact you have. Simple, but effective.
Lastly, you can motivate yourself artificially by making yourself accountable. There are two types of accountability that work for me: social and financial. For financial accountability, I use an app called “Beeminder” which tracks your progress regularly and if you fail to reach your goals, punishes you through charging your credit card. Since I hate loosing money for no reason, I’m motivated to accomplish the goals I set. For social accountability, either tell your friends or people you respect that you’ll do this project until a certain deadline. We hate others mocking us, and our motivation naturally increases every time a friend asks about our progress, and we come up with embarrassingly weak excuses why we’re not making progress.
The third piece to the formula is friction.
(Energy x Motivation) / Friction = Individual Productivity
While Energy and Motivation reinforce each other, friction reduces both. It’s therefore crucial to keep friction as low as possible. If you want to optimize your productivity, to have the biggest impact, Friction is the place to start. But what is friction anyway?
Friction is anything that stands in the way of you and your goal. It’s distracting noises, a room that is too cold or too warm. It’s not having the right tools to do the job. It’s getting stuck because the goal is not that clear after all.
Environment without distraction and discomfort
The concept of friction is fundamentally connected to Deep Work, a term coined by Cal Newport in the book of the same name.
Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.
For Deep Work, distractions have to be minimized. The biggest source of distractions is your environment, the place you work in. The things you can do to improve the situation are fairly trivial, but often people don’t think of them or, even worse, decide to just cope instead of doing something about it.
Take the co-worker who refuses to use noise-cancelling headphones. Every conversation that takes place within earshot will disrupt their focus. Weirdly enough, it seems to take a mental switch to not only recognize (and be annoyed about) a distraction, but to think about what you can do about it.
One simple thing you can do is to write down every time you get distracted during the workday. Noises disrupting your flow? Jot it down. Slack notifications get you chasing down a rabbit hole instead of doing the most important work? Jot it down. At the end of each day, quickly review each point and think about how you could avoid this in the future.
Here are some pointers from me:
- Noise-cancelling headphones are a no-brainer
- Turn off Slack, Mail, and any other messaging services during your work cycles. Alternatively, think about dedicated time slots where you check and answer them.
- Ensure comfort by having the right setup with keyboard, mouse, screen, and desk chair.
- Ensure that there is the right temperature by having a spare sweater near.
The right Tools and Resources
This one is a slippery slope. On the one hand, you’ll never have the perfect tools and resources for the job. Some people, especially in the productivity space, fetishize the newest tools and spend a significant amount of time to find the perfect tool for the job. Let me spare you some time and tell you right here, it doesn’t exist. On the other hand, having a bad tool might make it unnecessary cumbersome to do the task at hand. The trade-off you face is, hence, time and money spent on a better tool against the “slowness” of quality reduction of a suboptimal tool.
Some questions to ask, so you can gauge this trade-off:
- Do you know of a better tool for the job, or is research needed?
- How likely is it that you find a better tool? This is based on how good you know about other tools in the space and how much research you’ve already put in the search.
- How much better is the new tool suited for the task at hand?
- What’s the cost difference between the old and the new tool?
- How experienced are you with the current tool, and how much learning would you need to put into the new one?
Besides the right tool for the job, there’s also having all the resources needed for it. This one is non-negotiable and needs to be fixed. If there are documents or inputs from other stakeholders required that you don’t have yet, you should focus on getting those first.
Planning and Reflection
Lastly, a more ambiguous one that is not necessarily associated with reducing friction. I write about planning and reflection in the same token because they’re the same thing at their core.
Planning is connected to friction because one of the most common pitfalls is uncertainty about the next step. This problem has many levels. The first is that we don’t even know what goal we want to accomplish. If you don’t know where you want to end up, it’s hard to get there. Get clear about what you want to accomplish with your work.
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat. “I don’t much care where–” said Alice. “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
You know where to go, so let’s get walking? No. First, map out the steps you need to take to get there. Take some time at the beginning to strategize and plan. This will not only make it more likely that you don’t get lost on the way, but also helps to avoid dead ends and misleading paths.
Ok, now we know what we want to accomplish and how we want to go about it in general terms, we might even know all the bits and pieces of a task, but we don’t know where to start. As a result, we procrastinate. So make sure at every step of the way that you know what is coming next. Both when you start working and when you finish up, write down the next upcoming step. This will keep your work focused while avoiding endless meanderings.
Where does reflection enter the picture? It’s the checkpoints on your path, the small little breaks where you check if you’re still going into the right direction. This applies for little things like reflecting on which task you should do next, but also big things like your overall strategy and even the goal you pursue. To not get lost in doubt and endless reflections, I recommend an inverse frequency. This means you should reflect often and frequently on the small tasks, occasionally on your overall strategy, and every once in a while on your overall goal.