Truly productive people know something the rest of us don’t. They know that productivity isn’t defined by having a set series of methods to help you sort through your tasks. It’s not the Pomodoro technique or the Getting Things Done method — although these can certainly help you!
So, what is it? On a recent episode of Simplify, the Pulitzer-winning author of "Smarter Faster Better" and "The Power of Habit," Charles Duhigg, shares his insights. According to Duhigg, productivity goes beyond apps and methods. As he put it, “When it comes to productivity, the killer app has always been thinking more deeply.”
Using productivity methods can help you get started if you’re bad at beginnings, and they can help you follow through if that’s where you struggle, but real productivity doesn’t mean how much you get done, but what you get done. It’s knowing how to think in a way that helps you prioritize the right work, the right projects.
“When people see an increase in productivity, that does not come from some little technique or hack. That comes from understanding how to think more deeply about the questions that are in front of you. So, people who end up becoming much more productive, it’s not necessarily because they end up working harder, or because they change how they work. It’s because they start working on the right thing. Rather than wasting time on small projects, they understand how to identify and begin to break down the big important projects into meaningful steps.”
And so, if you feel like you’re busy at work but simply treading water in terms of progress, then it’s time to take a step back and analyze what deserves your attention. Hint: it’s almost certainly not the latest and loudest task that’s landed on your desk.
Think about work that would really make you proud. Think about where you want this work to take you. Think about what you would feel is really an achievement. And this doesn’t just go for your professional life. Thinking this way about your personal goals can also be massively beneficial.
Once you know what’s most important for you to focus on, then you can employ your favorite productivity method. By doing this, you’ll know that when you leave the office at the end of the day, you’ll have made real progress and can relax into your evening knowing you’ve gotten the most important things done. You’ll also begin to notice another pleasant side-effect of productivity: proper time off.
But given that he literally wrote the book on habit, Duhigg knows that it’s hard to jolt yourself out of old ways of working. We do what we know how to because it feels safer and is easier to default to when there’s a lot on our plate. That’s why it’s important to keep repeating this exercise, to keep thinking differently about your workload at regular intervals until you get to a point where you do it automatically.
Treat it like a mindfulness exercise. That’s what all the cool kids are doing these days, anyway. When you start to lose sight of your goals, make a point of calling your attention back to what matters. Don’t wade through seas of emails first thing in the morning if they’re not serving your larger purpose. Sure, they’re important, but most often, they’ll also wait!
Keep practicing until you get to a point where you think differently as a matter of habit. Then you’ll start to notice that the work you get done is work that you can be proud of. And that is what being productive feels like. Listen to the full interview with Duhigg on this episode of "Simplify":
"Simplify" is a podcast for anyone who’s taken a close look at their habits, their happiness, their relationships, or their health and thought, “There’s got to be a better way to do this.” Hosted by Caitlin Schiller and Ben Schuman-Stoler. Brought to you by Blinkist. Subscribe to "Simplify" on iTunes, Stitcher, RadioPublic or wherever you get your podcasts.