Everything You Need to Know to Master Productivity

Everything You Need to Know to Master Productivity

So you’ve decided you want to be productive.

First of all, great choice. Managing yourself in a way that allows you to get more done will have a huge impact on not only your task list, but also your sense of self-worth. Who doesn’t want to be that person who has a handle on their goals and daily to-dos?

Let’s face it, life is short. And we have a lot of things we want to achieve. The great thing about living in the 21st century? We have access to an almost limitless supply of information to help us do and be whatever we desire.

The bad thing about living in the 21st century? Information overload. Our attention is constantly getting hijacked by brands and marketing experts who have invested a lot of time and money into fracturing your time and money to help them build more time and money. Phew! No wonder so many of us feel like we’re running in circles.

There are loads of productivity programs waiting for you to try them out, but how can you decide which one works for you if you don’t even understand the fundamentals of what it takes to have a productive lifestyle?

Welcome to Lesson Zero of Productivity 101. Read through to the end and you’ll have a handle on the underlying factors that impact productivity, as well as some basic understanding of the elements you need to manage while you increase your productivity levels.

What Productivity Is

Productivity is officially defined in the Oxford Dictionary as ‘the effectiveness of productive effort, especially in industry, as measured in terms of the rate of output per unit of input.’

Whatever it is you want to achieve, your level of productivity can be measured by how well your efforts, tasks, and habits produce outcomes that lead you to your goals.

Imagine a machine – you have to input ingredients on one side if you expect anything to come out on the other. Your overall productivity level is tied to how quickly you can combine the right elements to produce something of quality.

Your overall productivity level is tied to how quickly you can combine the right elements to produce something of quality. Click To Tweet

What Productivity Isn’t

Something that’s very easily confused with productivity is busywork. This is the low level admin tasks hat seem important because of their urgency or ability to fill the time. The sticky stuff that keeps you operating in a survival mindset. You know you’re stuck in busywork mode because no matter how much you seem to stuff into your productivity machine, by the time you get to the other side there isn’t a lot coming out. You instead end up with that drained, unfulfilled feeling when you get to the end of the day and ask yourself, “What did I actually do?”

This way of living is something we want to shift.

Why Productivity is So Hard

It’s hard to be productive for many reasons, including:

  • Time wasters
  • Distractions
  • Unregulated hormones
  • Conflicting desires
  • Decision-making fatigue
  • Self-doubt and defeatism
  • Impatience
  • External expectations (like your employer’s bottomless task list)

Your aim is to find work that allows you to feel exhilarated, even after putting in loads of effort. It’s the fulfilling tasks that somehow help someone, somewhere, and give you a sense of having cemented your truest self.

To be a Productive Penguin, you need to know exactly what you want and what’s worthwhile to you, so you can design your life, identify weaknesses, and invest in knowledge and improvement opportunities to make your life as creative, fun, and purposeful as possible.

So how do we stay on top of something that feels as overwhelming as productivity? Keep reading.

Productivity = Managing Your Buckets

Productivity is not just a destination you reach with enough effort and then forget about. It’s a daily practice that requires consistently filling certain buckets.

Before getting to know your Productivity Buckets, look at yourself as a manager of a company. As the manager of [YOUR NAME HERE], you need to oversee many departments. Your job is to manage these departments so effectively that they begin working for you. This requires holding yourself accountable, and instilling systems and thought processes that increase your overall output.

One caveat: While you don’t need to top up each of these buckets every single day, they still require consistent filling over time for maximum productivity. If you don’t keep an eye, one day you’ll check in and find your productivity stores have evaporated. Refilling may feel like a lot at first, but it will get easier over time as you become more familiar with what you need to succeed.

Productivity Bucket #1: Time Management

“You can do so much in ten minutes’ time. Ten minutes, once gone, are gone for good. Divide your life into 10-minute units and sacrifice as few of them as possible in meaningless activity.”

Ingvar Kamprad, IKEA founder

168 hours. We’ve all got them. You, me, Beyonce. You probably know some people who seem to have a magic clock, they’ve got so much time. Their professional and personal lives are sorted, their house is clean, their side hustle is booming, and they play on two local netball teams.

In comparison, your clock sounds like it’s in sore need of a battery change.

Managing your time = managing your life. Whether you like it or not, life is measured in units of time. If you struggle to keep on top of where your time goes, you’ll find yourself feeling burnt out and stuck in a chaotic rut.

How to Master Time Management

  1. Accept that time is finite – the seconds you waste can’t be replaced
  2. Respect your own time, first – it’s yours to use as you see fit
  3. Understand how to bend time – learn the tricks that make your days feel longer
  4. Time tracking is a wonderful thing. It feels tedious in the moment, but it is super eye-opening. If you’re unsure, try it for a day. Take part in Matt Ragland’s 5-Day Time Tracking Challenge.
  5. Make Google Calendar your friend. Watch this video on calendar blocking, and this one on time batching – these are tricks you can use to take control of your time.

Productivity Bucket #2: Organisation

There are some things worse than working in a messy environment, but it’s definitely up there.

The amount of energy expended to try and find misplaced paperwork, the shame you feel when you remember your friend’s birthday two days late. These problems lie in the Organisation Productivity Bucket.

When you’re organised, you have systems set up to help you out throughout the day. Systems free up brain space, which makes you much more efficient at crossing off those to-dos.

That’s why people love labels on their folders and kitchen cupboards – one less thing to think about, or remember.

How to Master Organisation

  1. Know what you needs to get done
  2. Learn about tricks for organising your home and work environments
  3. Streamline this knowledge in a productivity system that will keep you unfrazzled and accountable
  4. Sign up for a free month of Skillshare, and take Thomas Frank’s class on creating a custom system that works.
  5. Watch this Alejandra TV playlist – 11 episodes on paper organisation.
  6. Sign up for TeuxDeux, and start categorising your task list for optimum efficiency.
  7. Grab a copy of Getting Things Done, the iconic last word in setting up a productivity system.

Productivity Bucket #3: Energy Management

So you know that time is finite, but did you know energy is as well?

If you’re at all familiar with the urge to simultaneously scoff a tray of cookies and take a nap around 3pm, you know that energy is something that does not last all day.

The good news is that there are tricks to managing your energy stores. Spoiler: Drinking copious amounts of sports drinks isn’t one of them.

How to Master Energy Management

  1. Accept that you will have energy dips, and they may occur at different times to other people
  2. Learn the healthy hacks that work with your body’s biology to help you reset your energy stores for increased productivity
  3. Read this article on the finitude of your energy stores.
  4. Track your eating habits for at least 3 days, and look for the possible causes of your energy lapses.
  5. Listen to this podcast episode on healthy energy hacks you can implement.

Productivity Bucket #4: Focus and Attention

Planning will only take you so far. When it comes time to get the work done, you’re going to need to focus.

And when we say focus, we mean uninterrupted time – no phones going off, no last-minute invites to the shops.

If you allow yourself to pay attention to multiple things at a time, you suffer the effects of “attention residue”.

When you turn your attention from one target to another, the original target leaves a “residue” that reduces cognitive performance for a non-trivial amount of time to follow.

Cal Newport, author of Deep Work

In other words, if you’re working on a piece of writing and then pause to check your latest Instagram notifications, bits of your attention will still be stuck on those likes and comments. Even if you don’t want it to be.

We live in the age of information – as well as the age of distraction. If you want to prime yourself for a productive, meaningful life, you need to separate yourself from the tools that are toxic to this goal.

If you want to prime yourself for a productive, meaningful life, you need to separate yourself from the tools that are toxic to this goal. Click To Tweet

You also need to consider what’s making you look for distraction in the first place. If you can tap into that underlying need, you can stop the crappy self-loathing that comes with extended task completion time.

How to Master Focus and Attention

  • Get that phone out of your room while you work. Put it on Do Not Disturb, allowing only your closest to get through that no-notification barrier in case of emergencies.
  • Read Deep Work and understand the enemies of focus and how to overcome them.
  • Reassess your values – if you’re not giving your attention to what you claim to care about, at some point that claim won’t be taken seriously. What do you want to focus on? Schedule time and make it non-negotiable.
  • Go back to Productivity Bucket #3: Energy Management, and review what could be draining your energy stores and leaving you less focused.

Productivity Bucket #5: Mindset

Don’t surrender all your joy for an idea you used to have about yourself that isn’t true anymore.

Cheryl Strayed

Humans are hardwired to organise events and memories into seamless, A to Z stories, to help us make sense of our lives. This is super powerful, but can be used negatively. If you’re walking around every day listening to the I’m a Lazy Loser podcast in your mind, it can be very hard to believe otherwise.

It’s important to become a master of metacognition – thinking about your thinking. Keeping your thoughts in check will allow you to find the holes in your thought processes and stop them up before they impact your ability to focus and get things done to the best of your unique ability.

How to Master Mindset

  • Browse the archives of ZenHabits for a dose of mindset reality.
  • Read about the Top Ten cognitive distortions you might deal with in Feeling Great by Dr. David Burns.
  • Access the Productive Penguins Mindset Manual (COMING SOON) – an affordable guide to the top mindset problems you’re probably having if you find it hard to stay productive.

Productivity Bucket #6: Habit Building

To create the life you want to live, you need to perform the same actions over and over until you look back at your starting point and realise how far you’ve come.

In the moment, it won’t feel glamorous. You won’t see results for a while. Which is why so many give up.

There are many secrets behind habit-building, which you’ll come to realise are actually quite simple, but hard to implement in spite of this.

What underscores the habit-building process is your level of self-trust. It’s a cycle – you need to spend time performing those daily reps to build trust, but if you don’t have that trust built you’re less likely to believe in yourself enough to keep performing.

Remind yourself that the more habits you build, the easier your life will become. Every day you do what you promised yourself you would, you move up a step on the ladder of self-improvement.

How to Master Habit Building

  • Read James Clear’s Atomic Habits. It’s your absolute go-to for the science behind habit formation.
  • Look at your environment – how can you better design it to make completing your tasks easier and more attractive?
  • Complete this visualisation activity – write down who you want to be on one page, and who you currently are on another. Circle the gaps. Start with the one that bothers you the most. Write a simple action plan to move you towards your ideal self.

Productivity Bucket #7: Physical Health

It would be remiss of us to go on and on about productivity, and managing your productivity like it’s a well-oiled machine, without focusing on the literal machine that carries you through your productivity system – your body!

Physical health is super important, but very easy to let slide until it becomes obvious it needs work.

There are four quadrants to think about:

  • nutrition
  • hydration
  • fitness
  • rest/relaxation.

See these quadrants not as ends in themselves, but things that service your overarching goals. If you know eating protein at a meal will help you feel full and allow you to work distraction-free, do it!

You might realise you need a 20 minute power nap in the afternoon to re-energise – or perhaps you know you need to avoid it because it makes you groggy!

Everyone is different. However, these four quadrants need to be ticked off somehow every day. You must hydrate enough, get oxygen pumping through your blood to keep your brain working, and absolutely need to carve out rest and sleep time for proper recharging.

How to Master Physical Health

  • Read about the importance of sleep. Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep is a good place to start.
  • In a notebook, track your food and water intake, and your exercise and sleep levels. After 3-7 days, review your log and see if there are areas you can improve.
  • Have a checklist of things you need to do each day to feel on top of your game. Clocking 10,000 steps, or drinking 3L a day, are two examples of actions that guarantee feeling productive.

Productivity Bucket #8: Reflection

While productivity may seem like something that requires constant hustling to get what you want, if you don’t factor in some time for review and reflection, you’re very likely missing out on crucial pivoting opportunities.

Just like your favourite store closes early a few times a year to take inventory, slashing prices on what isn’t selling, and revamping their image, you also benefit from frequent reflection on your progress to gauge what is and isn’t working, and make the necessary changes.

Having data to refer back to is super important. It’s very easy to forget that you haven’t been exercising as frequently as you initially promised. Seeing it on paper means there’s no way to hide.

How to Master Reflection

  • Take stock of your day before you go to sleep each night.
  • Review the week that was, ideally on Friday at the end of the work week, or on a Sunday evening just before the next one starts.
  • Find other opportunities to take stock – monthly, quarterly, and yearly reviews are a good system and ensure you stay accountable.

Productivity Bucket #9: Studying Successful Systems

Once you’ve got a handle on what makes you tick and keeps you working, it’s time to branch out and stay abreast of the different productivity systems your friends, colleagues, and successful people swear by.

Kanban, Ivy Lee Method, GTD… the list goes on! While there’s no expectation to follow any system religiously, it’s a great idea to take elements you like from each, combining them to create your own Super Productivity System.

How to Master Studying Successful Systems

  • Buy a notebook or binder folder to store your notes about each of the productivity systems you study.
  • Browse the Business section of your local bookstore – the how-to books in this section are more practical and action-oriented than others you might associate with the self-help genre!
  • Start looking at articles online about some of the more iconic systems. These include, but are not limited to: Kanban, The Ivy Lee Method, GTD, The Eisenhower Matrix, The Pomodoro Technique, Bullet Journaling, The X Effect.
  • If you come across a system you like, don’t stop at online summaries. Immerse yourself in the content – read the book, subscribe to the creator’s YouTube channel, listen to their podcast interviews. Continue taking notes.
  • Make the conscious choice to implement at least one action you learn about with each piece of content you consume. This will help you figure out which elements of each system work for you.

Next Steps

If you’ve made it this far, amazing job! Loaded up with everything you need to know about productivity, you are well on your way to developing a system that works for you.

If you’d like to keep learning about what you can do to get started on your productivity journey, work through this actionable list:

  1. In the comments below, let us know how you feel about your level of productivity. What buckets do you need help filling? Do you have any tips or tricks you can share with the group?
  2. If you’re unsure of which bucket you need help focusing on, take this quick quiz to find out. You’ll receive a free PDF checklist for each bucket’s action steps!
  3. Check out this post on the top tools you need to optimise your workflow.
  4. Get your hands on the Productive Penguins Starter Pack – our printable bundle jam-packed with resources and worksheets.
  5. Sign up to the 30 Day Productivity Challenge, and receive VIP access to the private Productive Penguins Accountability Group!


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