Productivity: The buzzword of the century

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It’s a topic that I couldn’t really ignore talking about since first of all, I’m still an economist at heart and second of all, it seems to be one of the hottest words in the business/self-improvement environment: Productivity. There really is an incredible amount of discussion on the topic – and I will link to a few sources at the end of this post – so it’s going to be hard for me to bring a fresh point of view to the table. Nevertheless, let’s get into the tricky discussion of what it takes to be a more productive person.


Breaking down the beast

The one recurring theme in all the talks about productivity is probably that of cutting out inefficiencies. To elaborate on that, it’s really about encouraging you to think along the lines of “if I give up and stop doing x, what can I then gain by doing y instead?” or “What small, inefficient things do I need to stop doing so that I can do a few more really effective activities?” This is probably why Tim Ferriss once said something like this (not a direct quote):

Being successful is about letting lots of little bad things happen (like someone getting mad at you for not replying to an email) in favor of doing relatively few really important things (like working on your book). There simply isn’t enough time in the day to do it all.
— Tim Ferriss

Tim Ferriss would be a great economist, you know, because I smell that economist’s way-of-thinking here – and I have a soft spot for good ol’ economists. Basically, what Tim hits on is that you need to focus wholeheartedly on tasks where you have the greatest marginal gains and effectively neglect (smaller) things that will hurt you in a relatively minor way. On that note, here’s a little treat for all the math nerds reading: I think this is similar to an optimization problem in calculus. Your constraint is time (24 hours in a day), the function is ‘doing important things’ minus ‘letting little bad things happen’ equals ‘useful work completed in a day’, and you obviously need to maximize the useful work you did. You’re then left with two questions: How many little bad things should you allow to happen in favor of doing a certain number of important things? How many important things should you then do? Sidenote: wouldn’t it be embarrassing if somebody called me out for getting this mathematical analogy completely wrong. That would be bloody mortifying.

Waste always makes me so angry
— Oscar Wilde

Anyway, let’s put aside the high-minded analogies and get to the more practical stuff. First of all, start by mapping out the nature of the work you do in your typical day: what do you do in the morning, afternoon, evening etc.? When are you in the best frame of mind to work? Where do you normally do your best work? These questions are important; you need to focus on deliberately engineering your day such that you identify and eliminate all the things that decrease your chances of working well but add those that bring out your best “hustle.” Look, don’t judge yourself here. I have days where I feel like shit because I played videogames all day. But what’s done is done: I own up to that and face that fact. But then I decide for myself, do I always want to feel like shit because I’m guilty that I didn’t do anything useful today, do I want to do something about it so that I don’t feel this way, or do I not even care about it all?


Do it to it

Ah the magic of simplicity. I still laugh till this day when I think of how useful this embarrassingly simple “life hack” was: keeping a to-do list. Obviously this isn’t a life-altering life hack, but it made me get my shit together so effectively that it became one to me. I kept forgetting important details about events, tasks, and those “man I should really look into that” things you always say. So, I decided to keep a to-do list. There are a few important tricks to writing good versus bad (or counterproductive) to-do lists, but I’m not going to go into detail on that here so check out the links at the end of this post for more. The one thing I will stress is to get specific and break big tasks into smaller and smaller tasks that are more manageable and less daunting. This makes it a far less depressing affair when you take a look at your to-do list. Remember, this list is for you and you alone so you have to make it in a way that is useful/personal to you. On that note, I remember reading a blog some while ago where the author said something along the lines of the following:

I could have had as a goal to write a book, but instead I decided to start the habit of writing a few hundred words for myself every day on a blog. A year later, I had written something like 80,000 words: which is basically a book. The thing is, I would never have achieved that if my explicit goal was to write a book.


It really is about razor-sharp focus and purpose: don’t just go through your day letting things arbitrarily happen to you. Take control of the course of your day and start every day with purpose so that its results aren’t so random and sudden. Have purpose, have intention, have focus. Then, as you get more comfortable with new routines and having more structure/purpose to your day, you can move on to more ambitious tasks (like blogging!).

Focus on making small improvements day by day and remember to recognize them.

Finally, I once again have to repeat something that is probably becoming a bit repetitive by now: mindset! Do you really want to be more productive or do you just like the idea of you being a more productive person? I know that I keep hammering on this mindset thing over and over again, but there’s a reason for this: having the right mentality is perhaps the most fundamental starting point for achieving any type of improvement whatsoever. This all depends on if you really want to put in the hard work to put systems in place for your own improvement (just like I talked about a few weeks back) or just like the idea of being more productive. I’m not going to make that choice for you, nor is anybody else going to do so. The choice is all yours.


Useful Resources

There’s an extraordinary amount of resources out there about productivity, but they’re probably too many to list. Nevertheless, here are a few useful resources that you might like:

1.      Freakonomics: “How to be more productive: They have a nice part on how to write the best, most effective to-do lists.

2.      Fizzle Show Episodes 180 & 181: 25 Workflow tips for entrepreneurs. Don’t be fooled by the title, because the tips they give here are absolutely not limited to just entrepreneurs. I especially like the e-mail tips.

3.      I prefer pen-and-paper for to-do lists because if I have to open an app on my phone, there’s a chance that I get distracted by other things happening on my phone. But if you’re a normal human being unlike me, you’ll probably want to use an app. This article has a few suggestions for productivity and task management apps (#3 is most relevant).

See you, Space Cowboy