The 6 (Updated) Cardinal Rules of Productivity — Jumping in Feet First, How to be More Productive in Less Time

It’s common practice to rush around every day and then fall asleep on the sofa from pure exhaustion. In fact, it’s become a bit of a trend. If you're not rushed through your day and barely come up for air… have you really had a ‘hard day’?

But then we feel like we aren’t productive. Such a paradoxical idea given the previous statement. How can this be? We spend our whole lives busy but yet we feel like we could be more productive? The hum of busyness should be the theme-tune to our productivity.

A study of 2,000 people found that:

“48 per cent of people think they would be able to clear their head and organise their lives more efficiently if they only had a little more time to think things through.”

How are we getting this so wrong?

Reimagining what it means to be productive in a busy world

We’re spending time on things that make us feel unproductive and then we rush around doing the other stuff. Or it could be that we are overwhelming ourselves with an unrealistic view of what we can achieve in a day?… if either is remotely true then we have some figuring out to do.

How can we become more productive and have more time? Surely it’s impossible. Well, I don’t think it is.

1. Your schedule should directly reflect your goals — A lesson from Tim Ferris

This is the holy grail. Tim Ferris talks about this in The 4-Hour Work Week. After getting bored of the treadmill that was his working life he found himself slogging away at work to no avail. He wasn’t getting the leads, he wasn’t selling more, he wasn’t being successful. He needed to figure out how to get more out of the day because it was making him miserable.

So he decided to switch up his working day, instead of working 9–5, he moved to working earlier and calling people later, and not working in between. What happened? Well, his sales sky-rocketed… why? Because like I just said, everyone’s busy. Your most free time is in the morning or after work. Tim found that people generally didn’t answer the phone to sales calls in the day… who would blame them? But they did answer early morning or late evening. So he hacked the schedule to suit him. If your goal is to sell more, figure out when people are buying most. When’s payday? When do people have the freest time?

Use that the create a schedule that will optimise your chances of getting where you want to go and won’t mean dead hours.

One company that does this famously well is Patagonia. Yvon Chouinard founder of Patagonia. He talks about the unconventional yet totally human way they work with their people. The employee handbook is entitled ‘Let My People Go Surfing’ is about as un-corporate as it gets. And considering they have a ridiculously low 4% staff turnover per year, I think it’s safe to say it’s working.

Look, we obviously can’t all do this. All of us are not in a position to rock up when we want and leave when we want. However, if you are in a position to understand when you are getting the most results and to capitalise on that, do. You’ll find, like Tim, you’ll be working less and getting more.

A tiny habit like changing the time at which you answer emails or ring someone might not feel like a big deal but it could end up being a game-changer.

2. Your schedule should also reflect your energy levels

Energy is something to be hacked. Understanding when you are most energetic is the first step in figuring out when you should schedule your tasks. The best way I’ve found to do this is to take a diary of the day and just make a note of your energy levels. Mark out of ten, for each hour of the day and note down how energetic you feel.

My daily inevitably ends up looking something like this:

  • 5 am: 5/10
  • 6 am: 6/10
  • 7 am: 9/10

Try doing the diary a few times to make sure it’s accurate. Make sure you include a range of different days. Once you have that you can work your routine around it. So for example, if you wake up and feel like you could take on the world, schedule your hardest tasks for the day then. What are hard tasks?

  • Writing
  • Planning
  • Strategising

Planning mundane boring tasks when you don’t have much energy works in the same way. If you’re feeling tired a little bit of admin is totally fine to handle.

It’s worth playing around with this over time and figure out what the perfect schedule is for you. I’ve seen online productivity gurus harping on about getting up at 2 am in order to take control of the day because that’s when they feel most alive. I mean, I certainly do not feel very alive at 2 am so I won’t be attempting a HIIT session in the pitch-black but if you want to go ahead.

There is real value in understanding when you feel most able to do some of the big stuff for the day and creating a routine that attacks that.

3. You’ll be surprised how much you can get done in 1-minute

If something takes less than a minute to do, you may as well do it there and then. In reality, you’d spend more time thinking whether to do it and then walking away from it, than you would just doing it. So if it takes less than a minute, in the famous words of Nike: just do it.

What would fall into that category you ask? Lots of things:

  • Putting your plate in the kitchen
  • Folding your jumper before changing into your pyjamas
  • Wiping the side before going to bed
  • Folding the blanket

There are loads of tiny tasks we avoid doing that then build up into a mountain of things to tackle and normally at the weekend. If you do them as you go, you’ll have less to do at the end of the week.

Working Monday- Friday and then having to do house chores all of Saturday feels like another working day. If you can crack some tiny habits Monday through Friday. A little hoover here, a little polish there. You’ll end up having your Saturday to enjoy doing the things you love.

“Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.”- George Eliot

4. Organise tasks that flow logically — some things just make sense to do one after the other

There are things that we can put together to make things less time-consuming. In other words, batching. Things like cleaning the bathroom before getting in the shower. There are tasks that are most suited to doing together. A romance of chores if you like.

If you clean the floors and then wipe all the sides down you’re going to have to clean the floor again. You might as well wipe the sides down and then clean the floor after.

Cleaning the bathroom before getting in the shower. Cleaning the toilet, sink and shower are probably some of the dirtiest cleaning jobs to do in the house. So with that in mind, there’s probably no better time for them than before you’re about to shower.

It’s the tiniest of tweaks but can really have quite a big impact on your productivity. Tiny habits are king in getting to be more productive.

5. Opportunistic productivity — do one thing when you walk one place

A little bit like the one-minute rule. When you walk to one place, do one thing. It’s really simple but it really works. So if you’re walking upstairs and something needs taking upstairs, take it upstairs. If you’re walking to the garage and the floor needs sweeping, give it a quick sweep. If you’re going into the kitchen and the pots are on the side and you’re waiting for your coffee… put the pots away. If you’re walking into the living room and the pillows need fluffing up a bit, give them a bit of a fluff.

It’s time spent in between other things that can sometimes be a waste. Like waiting for your coffee. What else are you going to do whilst the kettle boils? Put the pots away and that’s one thing off the list.

Opportunistic productivity is the best kind of productivity.

6. Learn from yourself

Life is a science and productivity is true of that too. It’s about testing, experimenting, learning and then changing. It’s about figuring out what is working and what isn’t and changing accordingly.

Create. Measure. Learn.

Just like in any scientific experiment. Let’s say we want to test if batching our emails allows us to have a more productive week. Emails we typically have open all day and can be quite a distraction. What if we tested only having our emails open at 12 pm and 4 pm?

Well, we can create an experiment. Here’s how:

  1. We observe the baseline — how productive do you normally feel when emails are open all day every day? Spend Monday-Friday measuring how productive you feel out of 10 — this is your baseline.
  2. We create the hypothesis — by batching my emails at 12 pm and 4 pm I’ll have more time and get more done. Clear and to the point.
  3. We test in experiment conditions — test Monday-Friday. Only open your emails between 12 pm and 4 pm. Make sure you’re not changing a load of other stuff i.e. yes you’re batching your emails but you’ve also then proceeded to schedule 200% more meetings. Trust me you won’t feel very productive. By changing other things you’ll have more variables which will mean you won’t know whether it’s the batching your emails that is impacting your productivity or the meetings. Keep everything the same as before just change your email open times.
  4. We observe the data — track every day a) that you batched your emails b) how long the emails took to get through c) how productive you felt the day was. Always good here to collect any other thoughts and feelings along the way too… i.e. how did you feel, what do you think could make things better? Numbers will tell us A LOT but it’s always to have some words alongside that.
  5. We conclude the results — how did the numbers change compared to the baseline? Up or down?

After that, we can get a gauge for whether batching is adding value or not. Without the investment of time and a bit of science, we’ll find ourselves getting frustrated at the same things over and over. Test and you will learn.

In summary: productivity isn’t an art, it’s a science

Tiny habits really can make all the difference in your productivity. I’ve found this to be true in my own life. I’m more productive now than I ever have been and now is the time I am testing and learning. That is not a coincidence. It’s science.

  1. Create a schedule that directly reflects your goals.
  2. Build a schedule that reflects your energy levels
  3. Optimise your time and use each minute effectively
  4. Organise tasks that flow logically
  5. Be an opportunist
  6. Learn from yourself

Do all that and you should see your productivity increase.