Happy New Year! It’s that time of year when so many of us like to take stock and make new plans. And one of the most popular things people want to do is to be more productive.
The good news is that the web is full of productivity tips. The bad news is that, despite all of the great information and systems out there, a lot of us still struggle to be more productive.
So why do so many productivity tips fail, and what can you do about it? That’s exactly what we’ll examine in this tutorial. But, I won’t be looking in depth at particular productivity techniques, although I’ll link to plenty of resources for learning more about those.
The focus of today’s article is not which productivity system to use, but rather how to approach productivity in a more successful way, whichever techniques you decide to use.
1. The Causes of Failed Productivity Efforts
Most productivity tips fail for a very simple reason: they focus on a particular technique or system, instead of the underlying behavior.
They give you the idea that a particular tool, app, or system will solve all your productivity problems and get you efficiently motoring through all your tasks for the next year.
What's Wrong With Shortcuts and Hacks?
It’s a tempting illusion, but an illusion nonetheless. We often fall for it in other areas of life, like dieting. It’s the South Beach Diet one year, Atkins the next, then Mediterranean, Paleo, and so on and so on. And still, 95% of diets fail.
The truth is that it’s not the productivity technique itself that is important. They all have their pros and cons, their advocates and critics. Like diets, most of them can work for a certain person at a certain time; most of them can also fail.
What’s important is the way you approach your productivity journey.
Are You Trying to Make Too Many Changes at Once?
One of the biggest mistakes people make is in trying to change too much, too soon.
It’s natural, of course—you want this coming year to be different from the one that’s just gone, and you try to make wholesale changes to major aspects of your life.
There’s nothing wrong with being ambitious, but the fact is that changing ingrained habits is very difficult. An oft-repeated saying is that it takes 21 days to change a habit, but research from University College London suggests it’s more like two months on average—and it varies considerably from person to person.
Consider also that a broad goal like being more productive can often involve changing multiple habits—you might need to:
- get up earlier than you’re used to,
- watch less TV,
- cut back on interruptions from your smartphone,
- and so on.
This is quite a lot to expect to change at once.
And then consider that life is unpredictable. You’ll probably have unexpected distractions, illnesses, arguments, setbacks and emotional upheavals to deal with between now and the end of the year.
If you’re too rigid and unrealistic in what you expect from yourself, those things will blow you off course.
Why a More Gradual Approach Often Works Better
I’m not saying that you can’t change your habits and be more productive. In fact, it’s completely achievable.
I’m just saying that you give yourself the best chance of success if you take a more gradual approach. Take the time to get one thing right, and then move on to another, and then another.
We’ll look at how to do this in more detail in the rest of the tutorial, but for now, just think of the year ahead as a marathon.
You don’t want to sprint the first mile, feel great for a while, and then collapse. You want to move at a pace you can sustain throughout the year, and ideally throughout the rest of your life. If that pace feels too slow for you at first, that’s OK. Resist the temptation to speed up until you’re sure you can do so without becoming short of breath.
2. Create Space
You have things you want to achieve this year, so it’s natural to make plans to plunge into those tasks. But one sure way to fail in your productivity goals is simply to keep adding more things to your to-do list.
What Can You Stop Doing or Reduce?
Before you start adding new tasks to your workload, you need to create space in your life. There are only so many hours in the day, and if you're going to do new things, you need to give something up. Otherwise, you'll never meet your goals.
So before you decide what to do this year, decide on a few things you're going to stop doing, or at least reduce. They don't have to be "bad habits"—they could even be work things that you put a lot of time into but that don't serve you well any more.
In fact, those can often be the biggest time sucks: the things you do because you feel you should or because you’ve been told they’ll help your career, but that don’t really have a measurable payoff.
How to Take Inventory and Track Your Time
Start by taking an inventory of how you currently spend your time. Of the 168 hours in a week, how many do you spend on things that are important for your main goals in life? What does the rest of the time get spent on?
Then, decide which of those things you’re going to stop doing. Try thinking big, following what Jim Collins calls the 20-10 assignment:
It goes like this: Suppose you woke up tomorrow and received two phone calls. The first phone call tells you that you have inherited $20 million, no strings attached. The second tells you that you have an incurable and terminal disease, and you have no more than 10 years to live. What would you do differently, and, in particular, what would you stop doing?
That should free up some time for you.
Keep in mind that you probably won’t immediately stop doing all the things you plan to stop doing, for the reasons we’ve already discussed. So don’t make a schedule that uses up every extra hour you’ve gleaned. But if you can stop doing even half of the things you don’t want or need to be doing, you’ll see a noticeable uptick in your productivity.
3. Keep It Simple
Now that you’ve created some space, don’t fill it all immediately. Instead of trying to change everything, try to change one thing at a time.
For example, you could pick one large goal that you want to accomplish, and try to cement the habit of waking up an hour earlier every weekday and working on it first thing, before you start all the other stuff you have to do.
Results Adds Up Fast When You Focus on a Single Activity
That’s a relatively straightforward thing to do, but it can make a powerful difference if you do it consistently. Over the course of a year, an hour a day of focused activity could add up to:
- writing a book,
- starting a new business, or
- achieving any one of a number of other ambitious goals.
Although it’s a simple change to make in theory, it’s also quite challenging to accomplish in practice. There will be plenty of mornings when you feel too tired, too upset, too distracted, and so on. To cement the habit will take a lot of work and determination.
So it makes sense to focus all your energies on making that one change. There may be changes you want to make to other areas of your life too, but leave those alone for now. Just do this one thing first. Work on it for a month or two at least, until it feels as automatic as taking a shower or brushing your teeth.
Work With Just One Productivity Technique at a Time
When you’ve got that habit down, consider picking up a productivity tool to use on the rest of your time. Again, don’t get overwhelmed by the choice, and don’t try to use several different techniques—just pick one, and work with it for a month or two. Consistency is the key.
You can find some great information on some of the popular productivity systems out there in our productivity learning guide, or in the following tutorials:
- What Is Productivity?Annie Mueller01 May 2020
- How to Keep Productivity SimpleDavid Masters09 Jan 2021
- How to Use the Getting Things Done (GTD) Productivity SystemDavid Masters13 Aug 2021
By the way, the example I gave in this section of working for an hour every morning on your main goal is just that—an example. People organize their time in lots of different ways, and you may find a different schedule works better for you. The point is simply to make a small but significant change and stick to it before trying to do other things.
4. Be Realistic
Even when you're just focusing on one thing at a time, you can still be unrealistic in how you set up your goals. Pushing yourself is good, but pushing yourself too hard just sets you up for failure. And besides, life almost always throws you a curveball every now and then, so you'll always need some leeway in your plans.
Scale Back Your Goals To Be More Successful
Take whatever goals you've come up with and scale them back by 20% or so.
One way to do this is by removing some of your goals altogether. Is there something that you’d like to do but that isn’t a real must? Perhaps you’ve always wanted to learn Arabic, but the time and energy involved in taking lessons would conflict with some other ambitious goals you’ve set. Maybe you can postpone it, for now at least.
Don’t forget that you can always pick up some of your dropped goals in future years, once you’ve cleared space by accomplishing the things on your list for this year.
Cut Your Goals Down to the Important Few
Try to be brutal and focus on just one thing that will make a real difference in your life. Then you can plan to add others later in the year if all is going well, but still avoid making your annual goals into a long laundry list of items. Two or three is plenty.
You can also create some leeway by pushing target dates further out into the future. For example, if your goal is to launch a business in six months, push that deadline out by an extra month to allow for the unexpected things that will come your way.
5. Be Kind to Yourself
One danger of working on your productivity is that you view yourself as a machine. You try to extract maximum output from that machine during every waking hour, and if it breaks down from all that pressure, you think there’s something wrong with it.
Don't Forget: You’re Not a Machine. You're a Human Being.
You need things like downtime, relaxation, and time spent with loved ones. If you don’t give yourself those things, guess what? Your productivity will suffer.
If you push yourself to work seven days a week, without a break, you’ll find it increasingly difficult to focus. You’ll probably get irritable and snappy, and you’ll be very susceptible to distractions. You’ll put more and more hours into your work, but you’ll spend a good chunk of those hours clicking away onto Facebook or watching clips of 1970s sitcoms on YouTube.
We tend to view things like this as a failure of willpower, but really they’re a failure of self-care. If you find yourself unable to concentrate, it may well be because your brain just needs a break, and if you keep refusing to give it one, it will just go ahead and take one anyway.
So rather than trying to be productive for every waking moment, make sure you plan some fun stuff as well, and schedule plenty of breaks.
In this tutorial we’ve examined some of the reasons why most productivity tips fail. We’ve seen that being more productive is not about finding the perfect system or productivity app, but about changing your approach.
We’ve talked about:
- how you can create space in your life for the changes you want to achieve,
- how important it is to focus on one thing at a time and to be realistic in your goal-setting, and
- how you can benefit by being kind to yourself rather than driving yourself to make productive use of every single hour.
The next step is to implement some of the strategies described here. Take an inventory of your life, and decide on some things you’d like to stop doing. Then start slowly, removing old habits and replacing them with new ones.
If you still feel that you need to read more about productivity before continuing, try the following tutorials:
- How to Do One Thing at a Time—and Stop MultitaskingAndrew Blackman11 Aug 2021
- How to Stay Productive and Stick to a Daily RhythmAnnie Mueller05 Jan 2021
Good luck with making habit changes this year. It's doable if you take a slow, gradual approach to making changes stick—one at a time.
Editorial Note: This content was originally published in January of 2017. We're sharing it again because our editors have determined that this information is still accurate and relevant.