I’m going to teach you what I know about being productive, as simply as possible.

Before we begin though, I should probably tell you that I disagree with the vast majority of productivity blogs and gurus. Also, this method isn’t backed by science, thousands of studies, or one weird trick.

It’s pretty straightforward.

Rule #1: Be aware of the incentives you create for yourself.

Becoming really good at productivity often means becoming really good at completing large numbers of tasks.

I don’t care about optimizing how many tasks I can get done in a day. What matters to me, and I think to most of us, is making material progress towards things that matter. Things more akin to a novel or software project than a 5-minute todo item.

Optimizing for the amount of stuff I can cram into a day feels disingenuous and disconnected from how the world actually works. The world often rewards us for creating value, not the number of things that we do.

Most task management apps distill tasks down to a single number. Optimizing for reducing this number would be misguided, at best. Success isn’t defined by some magical amount of tasks.

Humans respond to incentive very well, so try to create incentives that align with your goals.

Rule #2: Don’t make it hard to do your work.

“Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” — Confucius

Some people pride themselves on building complex ecosystems of software products that enable their productivity.

I used to do this too. Over the years I have used:

  • OmniFocus
  • Todoist
  • Things
  • Basecamp
  • Any.do
  • TeuxDeux
  • Remember the milk
  • Wunderlist
  • Bullet journaling

And probably dozens of others. I bought books, online courses, read hundreds and hundreds of pieces of content, and even took private training with some of the most well-known people in the industry.

Here’s the thing about that.

Humans suffer greatly from complexity bias. The more complex a solution is, the more likely we believe it to be the best. In reality, the simplest solutions are often the most successful. They’re easier to understand, implement and maintain.

That last one is important: lack of maintenance is one of the most common reasons for abandonment of a task management app.

Once populated with dozens, sometimes even hundreds of tasks, the system needs regular attention to stay current and hold our confidence. A few weeds begin to sprout here and there, and the system atrophies into a rats nest. This breaks our faith in the system, and we’re off looking for the new shiny thing that’ll bring order to our workflow.

Here’s the simplest solution I can come up with for the productivity problem. 

Step 1: Define your goals

Figure out the big picture stuff. I firmly believe that we should reach for depth over breadth. Become involved in fewer things, but go deeper. This works for relationships, projects, learning, hobbies, etc.

Sit down and think intensely about the things that matter to you. Think about the accomplishments you’d like to have. Figure out the leading indicators of success and bake them into a plan. This process helps you determine your focus areas.

Step 2: Work on the right things at the right time

A good system gives context and visibility to tasks or projects that need to be worked on now.

Context is important because it enables you to operate within a narrative. What came before, and what comes after are just as important as what you’re currently doing. Narrative chronology establishes momentum and allows us to work on complex tasks that require multiple sessions to complete.

Visibility means never losing track of a task. My favorite solutions have a pool or backlog of tasks that you can pull from. If something gets pulled and not completed, it gets returned to the pool for another day.

Think about how you spend your time and try to be intentional. For the things that you aren’t motivated to do, create a list and prioritize. Be aware of due dates and commitments.

The difficulty here comes from maintaining focus. The internet can pull you into a multitude of directions. It requires serious discipline to adhere to the path, no matter how visible it is. Developing grit and perseverance will be some of the most important work you’ll do. 

Step 3: Have a way to reset

I’m a big fan of keeping a tidy workspace. When I’m feeling stuck or unmotivated, I’ll tidy my workspace or my surroundings.

This also serves as a mental reset. The location or the activity isn’t important. Other people take walks or showers. What’s important is that you find a way to refresh your energy and clarify the mind. Often some of our best work is done away from our workspace.

Step 4: Keep it simple

Eschew complexity. You don’t need some calibrated ecosystem of software products. Pencil and paper work great. If you like digital, a simple text document can suffice. The goal should be to work on the essential and make room for deeper engagement.

In general, less is more. Think fewer tools with fewer rules.

Conclusion: Tactics vs Principles

There’s always a new way to do something. A new article, a new app, a new productivity video. Part of your journey will be to learn how to silence these distractions and stick to the system.

The principles, after all, do not change much over time. New tricks often end up looking a lot like old tricks once the packaging is removed.

My final piece of advice is to spend some time distilling down to the essentials. What is the bare minimum that you need to do the work that matters? Start there. Chances are you’ll finish there too.