My Productivity Techniques

The most common question I get goes roughly like this: How do you do it? How do you manage to be a hands-on dad to four kids, to mentor scores of professionals and students scattered across the globe, to perform well at a demanding engineering job, and still have time to write a book and a blog? The answer, as you may suspect, is not a one-liner. Over the years, I have developed a suite of tools to help me be more productive and get more out of each moment. I will give a brief overview of these techniques today and then expand on them in subsequent posts. But here is the essence of my secret sauce:

1.       Write down tomorrow’s most important tasks today.

Before I end a day, I write down what has to be accomplished tomorrow, and then I sleep on it. Doing this makes me wake up with better ways to go about the tasks. I limit this list to three. I ask, what are the top three must-dos tomorrow? The tasks do not have to be related but they can be.  This is especially true with big projects. For example: Task #1) Create a list of major stakeholders; Task #2) Develop a communication plan; and Task #3) Review plan with a senior colleague.

2.       Eat that frog!

Brian Tracy wrote a popular book titled Eat that frog! The idea is that, though a frog is a distasteful meal (i.e., your most difficult task), if you can get yourself to eat it, every other task will seem easy by comparison. The trick to doing more each day is to tackle the proverbial elephant in your mind’s room. If asking for help is your frog, then the first thing you do at the start of your work day is to go ask for help. All other tasks that day will be easier once you have already eaten your frog for breakfast!

3.       Have a “Miracle Morning.”

Hal Elrod is the author of a bestselling book, The Miracle Morning. He noticed that high-achievers and highly productive people have specific morning routines. He explains these routines using the acronym Life SAVERS. S – Silence. Begin each day in silence. I use the time to pray. A – Affirmation. Say what you want from life. Pray. V – Visualization. See it to have it. E – Exercise. Move about. Shake off lethargy. Get your heart pumping in readiness for the day. R – Reading. Read something to elevate yourself. It’s like exercise for the mind. S – Scribing. It was Francis Bacon that said, “Writing makes an exact man.” When you write, you order your thoughts. Ordered thinking leads to ordered life. I love my Miracle Mornings.

4.       Get a good night’s sleep

Sleep is grossly underrated. The body needs rest more than it needs caffeine. I have found sleep to be a big boost to my productivity. A good night’s sleep always leads to a very productive day. When I rest well, my mind is clear and I can accomplish in an hour what sometimes would take twice as long. My body is also relaxed, and I can push it further without harm. I have found 8 hours of sleep to suffice. Many sleep experts say an adult should have no fewer than 6 hours of sleep a day.

While sleeping, your memory re-arranges itself, and your brain tries to find solutions to problems that eluded you during the day. Healing of worn out muscles and cells take place. To cut this miraculous process short is not worth it. There is simply no substitute for good sleep.


5.       Don’t Break the Chain

Jerry Seinfeld, the famous comedian, is credited with this technique that I have used for years now with success. This technique is especially useful if you have a long-term project (e.g., writing a book) that you need to work on consistently. You need a calendar and a pen for this. Say you have a goal to write for 15 minutes every day. You will place an X on the calendar on the day you achieve this goal and leave it blank on the days you don’t. Once you have a chain of X’s, you will loathe to break the chain. You will do all in your power to keep it going because it just looks good to keep the X’s together.

For this to work, you have to put the calendar in a place where you will see it several times a day. You need that constant visual reminder as a pat on the back if you have placed an X that day or as a nagging reminder that you have yet to put an X.

6.       Pomodoro Technique

Pomodoro is Italian for tomato. But this technique has nothing to do with food. It was developed by an Italian who used a tomato-shaped clock to invent this time management technique. Here’s how it works. Set a 25-min countdown timer (It can be anywhere from 25 to 45 minutes depending on the task’s complexity and how long you can focus intensely.). Start a task and don’t leave it for anything until the 25 minutes is over. Take a 5-minute break. If the work is not done yet, repeat the process. After the third Pomodoro, take a longer break.

This technique is a godsend for me. It is ideal for office work. To make it effective, turn off any potential sources of distraction, e.g., your email program or phone. If I don’t need the internet, I turn off my computer’s access to the internet as well. If someone approaches me during a Pomodoro session, I politely say “Can I get back with you in a minute?” and then quickly turn back into what I was doing. If a distracting thought (e.g., we have run out of milk) comes into mind, I simply write it down (buy milk on way home) and move on. If you have trouble getting things done, I encourage you to try this Pomodoro Technique.

While “Don’t Break the Chain” helps you keep going for the long haul, the Pomodoro Technique helps you drill deep to do a job right. Both are essential to continuously produce quality at speed.

I have by no means provided an exhaustive list of productivity techniques. But these are the ones that I have used for a while and that have helped me increase productivity the most. Please let me know in the comments section the ones you have used effectively. Here’s to a productive year!