Four Secrets of the Super Productive

I actually don’t know if I’d be considered super-productive. But I do get asked a bit how I “manage to do it all”. I certainly don’t do it all, and I have my days where I’m woefully behind or buried or overwhelmed. What I DO do, however, is get the important stuff done on a pretty consistent basis.

There’s an entire industry of books, gurus, and other stuff around being more productive, getting more done, being more efficient. I don’t particularly subscribe to any one system because, well, I haven’t found one that works for me. So I guess I’ve created one of my own, more or less.

But when I think about it, this isn’t a system. It’s not fancy. It’s four deceptively simple ideas that I put into play, every day, in order to manage the work I have to do. I’d love to hear what works for you, but here are four “secrets” I use every day.

1. Schedule meetings with yourself.

If you’re drowning in meetings, there is only one way to make sure you carve out the time to dedicate to project work.

Schedule it.

That means that just like other meetings on your calendar, the time you block off for that work is rendered unavailable. I understand that some meetings you can’t say no to, but sometimes, you can push back a little on the need for a meeting or a call, or ask for clarification around the urgency and schedule accordingly. Sometimes, the answer is just that you aren’t available.

I try to keep Wednesdays meeting-free unless that’s the only option for something that’s important or time sensitive or both. That way I know I have big blocks of time where I can buckle down and plow through meaty projects.

2. Keep a deadly simple to-do list.

I’ve tried every to-do list program known to man on my computer. And every time, I come back to a handwritten list in my Moleskine. I spend 45 minutes or so at the start of each week reviewing last week’s list, combing through my email, and building a new, fresh list for the week.

That’s just what works for me, but what you have to do is be willing to keep that list of priorities somewhere. For some people, it works to ONLY put on the list the top 5 things that have to get done for the day, and then they’ll look at the whole list. For me, I put a little ** next to the items on my big list that have to come first. I don’t even look at the rest until those are done. If something comes in that has to trump something else, I adjust, but stick to the same mindset.

Knowing what has to get done first is the only way to stay focused. It’s a matter of carefully weighing priorities and understanding what gets the choice position on the list relative to the other things. That balance will shift constantly. And the stuff you WANT to do and the stuff you NEED to do aren’t always going to be the same things.

3. Turn off the email, Twitter, Facebook…whatever your devilish distraction is.

The trouble with the constant flow of information from these places is that they’re interruptive. It’s too easy to get distracted by an incoming email or a Twitter reply that feels urgent, but probably really isn’t. It feels that way because it’s RIGHT THERE, but if you’re dedicating time to something concrete, those messages can send you down rabbit holes and you’ll never get back on track.

Because of my job, I keep Twitter up in the background. When a message for me comes in, I glance. If it can wait, it does. If it can’t, I deal or delegate, and go back to what I was working on. But for most of you, your job doesn’t depend on split-second response to messages like these. So you need to evaluate when you can shut it off. And do it.

I don’t do well with “scheduled” blocks of time to check email or do Twitter, but that might work for you. I deal with it more spontaneously but with a concerted focus. So I’ll say ok, next on my list is to process email for 15 minutes or so. And I do, then I go back to the next thing on the list. Find a way to fit in the stream of messages that doesn’t totally derail you when you’re in Flow.

4. Make hard choices.

I don’t watch a lot of TV. I spend a lot of evening hours writing after my daughter goes to bed, or early morning hours before she gets up. I sometimes skip out on the after parties at events (or the pre-parties) in order to work and get stuff done while I have the luxury of a hotel room free of distractions. I don’t play Angry Birds for hours, though it’s hard to resist.

There is no magic in this. And some people simply aren’t willing to sacrifice their family TV time or their weekly book club or whatever, and that’s fine. It’s all personal choice. I’m a single mom, so I have to balance work with time I spend with my kiddo. But regardless, if the goal is producing more or being more efficient, something has to give. I know that no one dies wishing they worked more. But for me, big deposits now will hopefully mean bigger return later, and the ability to rework the balance in favor of more time for me. We’ll see if I’m right.

What Are Your Secrets?

There’s probably nothing in here you haven’t heard before. The trick is – like anything else – you can’t just read it. You have to do it. That’s the biggest secret of all. Actually making the changes to your daily workflow to do these things. Taking the time to evaluate your current work patterns, and adjusting where you need to.

Most people’s productivity problems aren’t because they don’t have enough hours, it’s because they manage them badly. They spend way too much time trying to refine the system or chasing unimportant or distracting items, and not nearly enough time to do the work itself.

So when the chips are down, the big secret to productivity is to quit making excuses for our own lack of discipline, and just get going. That list over there isn’t going to check itself off. Tough love from the Tacks. But that’s why you come over here, right?

Now go make things happen. Off with you.

image credit: Ross. Simply because I thought it was fun.

  • Chris Moody

    5. Wear headphones.

    I’m big into lists and scheduling time with myself (er… um…), but I also find that wearing headphones is really helpful. You don’t even need music playing… When people see you wearing headphones, they have to debate if a “normal interruption” is actually something worth interrupting for and it helps you get more time with your head down cranking away. This is especially helpful in shared workspace environments.

    See you at BlogWorld?
    Chris Moody

  • Chris Moody

    5. Wear headphones.

    I’m big into lists and scheduling time with myself (er… um…), but I also find that wearing headphones is really helpful. You don’t even need music playing… When people see you wearing headphones, they have to debate if a “normal interruption” is actually something worth interrupting for and it helps you get more time with your head down cranking away. This is especially helpful in shared workspace environments.

    See you at BlogWorld?
    Chris Moody

  • Jason mKey

    Another great article.

    One tip that works for me is to have a productive space. If I sit on the couch and try and get work done, it’s just not going to happen. When I sit at a desk and have a designated place for productivity, it’s amazing how much I can get done.

  • Jason mKey

    Another great article.

    One tip that works for me is to have a productive space. If I sit on the couch and try and get work done, it’s just not going to happen. When I sit at a desk and have a designated place for productivity, it’s amazing how much I can get done.

  • Joel Widmer

    This is one of those posts that no matter how many times you’ve heard it, you (I) Need to hear it again! Great post! Especially loved the deadly simple to do list. I’ve been through the same thing and always come back to a pen and paper daily calendar. I also loved make hard choices. Something always has to give when you decide to MAKE time and stop using the excuse you can’t ‘find’ time.

  • Susan Murphy

    A productivity secret that I’ve just recently learned is delegation. I’m a control freak, so it’s hard for me. But I’ve found that things just get done better and faster and to higher quality when I delegate the right tasks to the right people. It might be a challenge if you’re a one person show, but even if you can outsource tasks like server and domain management to a contractor, that’s one less headache you’ll need to be worrying about, so you can focus on what you have to do.

  • JoselinMane

    Great & “Timely” tips!

    I learned the 4 D’s of anything that I come across
    1. Do It
    2. Delay it
    3. Delegate it
    4. Delete it

    I another thing that’s been helpful is egg timer, smaller more focused blocks of time, I think it’s because if I set too much time there is no sense of urgency.

    oh BTW I love Angry Birds, best iPhone app & one of the 5 apps I have actually purchased and an excellent reward to completing a To do ;-)

  • WMpS

    Fantastic post, Amber. I do find that it’s much easier to get everything accomplished if I simply buckle down and get those tasks accomplished, setting everything aside for a day to just focus on my own particular jobs. Like you, I also keep Twitter running in the background most of the time. I can’t set aside a specific time to work with it simply because it’s always going – I could miss that window I need to accomplish my goals.

    Lists are incredibly useful and I find myself with several going at one time – the important NOW list, the weekly list, and the long term list. That helps me prioritise on a daily basis while keeping in mind tasks that do need to get accomplished less urgently.

  • PerkStreet Jen

    I make a to do list in Excel, and assign each task a priority, then arrange the data in order of priority. Makes sure the important stuff gets to the top of the list. If after a while the low priority stuff still isn’t getting done, I rethink whether it should be on the list at all.

  • Anonymous

    I’m with you Amber on the ‘old school’ handwritten list. It’s easy, quick and gives me a sense of accomplishment when I physically cross it off instead of deleting a line. On crazy busy days I do schedule blocks of time for top priority items but it all manages to get done. And with three young boys, I’m more productive than ever, quicker in making decisions & more driven because there’s not a ton of time to flounder. Doubtful I would survive in a world without chaos.

    • Colleen Clifford

      There’s something really satisfying about checking things off on paper, isn’t there? I have a notebook designated for my weekly “to do” list, and reprioritize every Monday morning over coffee. When the notebook is full, I dump it in my desk drawer and start a new one. Not only are the old notebooks a great source of reference for past projects, they also make me feel better on my “stuck” days — reminds me of all the stuff I CAN and DO get accomplished. :)

  • Chris Syme

    I do use Outlook to schedule meetings with myself and it is wonderful. Increases my daily productivity on hectic days.

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  • Drew Hawkins

    I’ve actually used a lot of digital organization things out there but like your moleskin, I continually go back to my tiny “to-do” whiteboard at my desk. It’s so much easier and quicker than my multiple task managers.

    I schedule time to work on multiple projects. This is mainly to avoid getting so wrapped up in one that other necessaries end up becoming neglected. I schedule which projects I work on like they’re meetings (similar to your strategy). This forces me somewhat to stay focused on only one thing when multiple things are coming at me.

    My biggest thing was turning off Twitter and email. I would get updates all the time and felt compelled to check them. The day would zoom by and I wouldn’t be half done. Tweets are being archived in the Library of Congress…I figured they’d be there when I returned. Email is another giant when multiple requests can take me off of what I was trying to get done – even if those requests weren’t urgent.

  • Erica Cosminsky

    This is a great article. Like you, Amber, I always come back to my Moleskine. I use my Blackberry to schedule appointments if I’m out but I’m much better at making lists and writing in the Moleskine. Maybe it’s something narcotic about the creamy and smooth paper.

    I’ve also found I work a lot better under deadlines. If let to my own devices I’ll always find some craft to do or I’m on Twitter.. yeah I admit that one. I make lunch dates with my focus partners and I have to get X, X and X task done before I meet with them so they don’t think I’m a slacker… whose on Twitter 24/7.

  • Ricky Cadden

    I’ve also tried many of the to-do list managers online and for your computer, and find that I always revert back to using 3×5 index cards – yes, index cards. Their small size means I can only fit a small number of tasks (~20 max) on there, so I’m not overwhelmed. I can keep it in pretty much any pocket without having to fold it up, and keeping up with it means I can’t ignore it.

  • Gabriele Maidecchi

    Luckily I have always been pretty able to cut out “me” times out of my scheduled meetings and such. I personally use a web based task manager which I have an app for on my iphone and ipad (Toodledo, very nice service, basic but efficient), but most importantly I try to avoid distractions keeping myself from being overwhelmed by information.
    One trick I can recommend is taking decision on what kind of information is *REALLY* relevant to you, and what is more like an accessory. Then, I keep two different Google Reader accounts, one with important feeds, one with the less important ones, and I check the latter just late in the day, if at all. If I have too many posts unread there, I have no fear to hit the “mark all read” button.
    This works for me very well at least for the “feed problem”. It’s a start.

  • Natalie Sisson

    Definitely have cut back on meetings and try to schedule more short but valuable discussions on Skype.
    I also have blocked out hours each week for writing time, marketing time etc.

    Turning off the Social Media distractions is key, checking in for 20 minute periods 3 or 4 times a day works.

    I’m also a big one for writing out to do lists, although I find they get quite long and unruly. I’m trying out – an online to do list that is incredibly simple to use and carries over the important stuff.

  • Frankloveswine

    Excellent list. Number 3 is a hard one since it’s part of my job. : D

  • Steven Handel

    I think the key to all productivity is to adopt our own system. Seeing what works for other people is useful, but, to some extent, they only work for those OTHER people, not you.

    On that note, you have a lot of really good advice here. I could definitely take advice from #3. AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) is my worst distraction. People IM me and then I have to give them some attention and it completely throws off my rhythm. Same for Facebook.

    I hope to be reading more from you soon!

  • Lucy Hartle

    Your comment on lists made me laugh – I too have tried every existing list software, widget, app… and always revert back to good old pen and paper. I am a massive lover of lists, I can’t operate without them!

    One other thing I do, as most of my jobs come in via email requests, is set priorities to the emails sitting in my inbox. As they are completed, I file them away. Also, I ask colleagues to email me if they have questions so I do not get distracted away from my main work flow by people coming to talk to me.

    Absolutely agree with wearing headphones! :)

  • Katie Morse

    I have a few techniques that seem to work for me, but like you – I think that these are personal… they won’t work for everyone.

    - Make a fresh to-do list every Monday (required), or during the week (depending on how much gets knocked off/added)
    - Wear headphones (identical to Chris, I sometimes wear them even if there’s no music playing)
    - Spend 10-15 minutes at the end of every day filing/organizing email, updating my to-do list and planning for tomorrow
    - Schedule meetings with myself and shut off EVERYTHING else to concentrate on the task at hand

    The biggest thing for me has been to realize when I’m NOT being productive, and start to figure out why. Is it the music I have on? Do I need to move around in the office and have a change of location to re-energize me? Should I focus on something else (if, for example, my writing is just not happening at that moment) for a bit?


  • Ramsey Mohsen

    My friend Neal taught me this technique. It’s a good way to scan and plan your current week’s tasks. It’s best if you start this system on Sunday nights or first thing Monday morning. Here is how it works: open your notebook to a clean page. Write down headings for everyday of the week (”Monday, Tuesday, etc”). Under each day, write down the “must do” tasks just for that day. Your tasks for any given day shouldn’t exceed more than 6 tasks. And some tasks are allowed to be “start X” or “begin Y”. Often, there are times when you need to start and make progress that day, but not finish actually the task. I find the Day-by-Day Notebook system is really helpful when you want to see in a given week the things you’ll be working on and when.

    • Wilssearch

      I do that with iCal, which is also color coded. I print out the week on Sunday nite, then switch to the daily view for each day, sometimes printing it out, sometimes not. With the weekly print sheet, I get the satisfaction of marking it off. I now have to keep track of how many hours I spend on certain projects, so I do need a better system of tracking time actually spent.

  • Anonymous


    You’ve got it all going on. Thanks for your inspiration. May I add two things

    …respect yourself and know you are worth the focus it takes to put out good work.
    …reward yourself for the small accomplishments

    “Well done is better than well said,” Benjamin Franklin

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  • Dave Straker

    A few of mine:
    * Say no. Or if you can’t say no, say ‘Yes, but which of these other things shall I not do?’.
    * Get in early and do a day’s work before anyone arrives to disturb you. Or leave early and work somewhere else. Or work at lunchtime and get peace when everyone else is munching.
    * I also wear headphones. For focus I play new-age aural wallpaper (no lyrics).
    * Plan. Don’t just dive in.
    * Beware of speaking up at meetings when you’re likely to get the monkey for your suggestions.
    * Beware of change work that doesn’t have senior support. It’ll eat all the time you have and then fail.
    * Avoid people who will give you work (when you have plenty already).
    * Don’t read other people’s blogs and then spend ages thinking of a good reply when you should be doing something else. ;-)

  • Wilssearch

    Thanks for the reminder, here I am reading e-mail and facebook and other people’s blogs instead of working!

  • Amit Singh

    Generally I do not post on blogs, but I would like to say that this post really forced me to do so. Really nice post!

  • Khürt Williams

    “I know that no one dies wishing they worked more. But for me, big deposits now will hopefully mean bigger return later, and the ability to rework the balance in favor of more time for me.”

    Just remember. No one knows when they will die. It could be fifty years from now or 50 seconds from now.

  • Gila

    Easier said than done (unfortunately)…..

  • Gretje Ferguson

    This is my favorite sentence in your article: “Knowing what has to get done first is the only way to stay focused.” Yup.

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  • Tylerwhitedesign

    One thing that helps me is an app on my iPhone that logs the time I spend on each task I’m working on that day. Of course, I have to press Start and Stop (among other things) for it to actually work but my motivation to be more productive and efficient reminds me to use the app. As someone who does not have a lot of experience with freelance time management, I find my time tracker (and money tracker) app extremely valuable.

  • Karen Toms

    I agree with Joel that this post is a great reminder. It really resonated with me. No matter how many times I explore different electronic systems I always come back to a written To Do list in my notebook. Plus you’re right – making time is all about choices. Sometimes means missing out on things but if you want to achieve something special you have to put the hard work in. Thanks Amber.