6 New Productivity Principles to Live By

6 New Productivity Principles to Live By

A while ago I laid out a small set of productivity principles that sum up what makes me really productive. Distilled from a million tips I read online on a daily basis, they’re the gems that make the most difference in my everyday life.

From the time I wrote that article, I had the chance to try many new principles that are probably as effective as those. So, there you go: the six tried and tested new productivity principles that have been working exceptionally well for me — and which can make you feel at your best too.

Principle 6: Goals are for today, not for the future.

I got this insight from Steve Pavlina‘s book Personal Development for Smart People, and it’s as simple as it’s powerful:

The point of goal-setting is to improve the quality of the present.

For a long time, I was setting goals that were like punishments: their only purpose was to serve as whips to get me to work. “Sacrifice yourself now to reap the benefits later” was the rationale. No wonder I have had a hate relationship with goals for a long time — I’m glad things have changed now.

Set goals that make you feel powerful, motivated, and driven when you focus on them, long before the final outcome is actually realized. So the debate about setting your goals on a daily, weekly or yearly basis doesn’t really matter much. What matters is that your goals create not only a better tomorrow but above all a better today for you.

How to Apply this Principle

  • Ask “Will committing to this goal improve my present reality?” If you can’t find a good answer, either refine the goal or throw it away. For example: Suppose your goal is to ‘save money’. The goal is just not worth it if it makes you feel miserable. But if ‘saving money’ makes you feel more confident about what you could do tomorrow, empowered and in control, that’s a keeper.

Principle 5: Do you want to improve? Track it!

Do you want to exercise every day? Then track the days when you exercise on a calendar. Do you want to write the best book ever? Track how many words a day you actually write.

You can improve anything you do if you pay attention to it on a regular basis. When you track, you get cold, brutally honest data. That means, for example, realizing that you’re writing zero words for your novel, day in and day out, exactly as your blank calendar makes painfully clear. Nothing is more revealing (and shocking!) than real-world data — real data about your actual world.

And guess what: once you start tracking, you may not even need to do any conscious effort to improve. There’s a phenomenon called the Hawthorne effect: we change our behavior just by being aware that we’re being watched. This means that tracking, by itself, can set in motion the changes that you need without any further conscious effort!

How to Apply this Principle

  • Use (simple) tracking systems. Take anything you want to improve and create a simple spreadsheet or table in your notebook. And since you may need to record data often, tracking should be fast and easy, otherwise it won’t work.

  • Keep a journal. Writing regularly is a great way to track your thoughts in a more informal way; it helps clarify what you think about any topic you choose. An effective way to track the topics that matter to you is by using the Topics du Jour technique.

Principle 4: Treat upcoming decisions as regular tasks.

I firmly believe that taking commitments seriously is paramount for leading a productive life (as I’ve outlined in one of the principles in the original manifesto — “Honor Thy Commitments”). However, that raises a big issue: when we aim at honoring all our commitments, we tend to hesitate a lot before accepting any new ones into our lives to begin with.

And avoiding new commitments usually manifests itself as delayed decisions. After all, for every decision we make, it means that all tasks associated with it have been officially ‘welcomed into’ our lives, like it or not.

Those pending decisions are big energy drains and a major source of procrastination: we can’t afford to let them hang around for too long. They not only deplete our energy but, most importantly, delay meaningful, important action in our lives. And, perversely, decisions with the greatest payoffs are the ones that we tend to put off the most.

How to Apply this Principle

  • Make upcoming decisions explicit. Don’t let important decisions drift aimlessly in your head: treat them exactly like any other of your tasks. Write them down and deal with them. Put them in your to-do list and allocate the amount of time necessary to make the decision.

  • Set a time limit for making decisions. Oftentimes we have the illusion that if we just wait a bit longer, it will become easier to make the decision — but in fact that usually simply compounds the problem. Most of the time, it’s better to just decide (imperfectly), adjusting to the results of our choices as we go. Set a timer and commit to having the decision made by the time the alarm goes off.

Principle 3: Keep it simple, sweetie.

When creating to-do lists, setting goals and the like, I always assume that these things will be used by the dumbest person I can think of — me. And I’m right: although I usually feel very smart when setting goals and planning, the “doer” in me is indeed the dumbest person I know…

This “other me” (which is in control most of the time) is a procrastinator. He looks for any excuse to escape work. He wants things to be complicated — because it’s in complexity that he finds ways to avoid work without feeling guilty — while pretending to be very busy indeed.

So yes, we still want to plan, set goals, review; but let’s keep things simple — otherwise the doer in us will find ways to avoid the important stuff. Simple tasks lists, simple goals, simple reminders.

How to Apply this Principle

  • Use simple tools and systems. Don’t make it complicated. Use pen and paper or other simple tools. Remember: your goals and plans are only support tools for action, and you shouldn’t spend any more time or effort than necessary on these things.

  • Always look for ways to simplify things. This is more than an isolated act — it’s a mindset. Constantly look for opportunities to simplify routines and put time and effort streamlining them. To make things simple is one of the most difficult things there is, but it pays off!

Principle 2: Fresh starts, every day.

It’s impossible to be productive every single day. There will be setbacks. There will be times when you will succumb to distractions. It’s a fact of life, and that’s OK.

Don’t fret over lost time; don’t try to catch up with yesterday’s unfinished tasks. If yesterday was bad, just start afresh today. I like to think about this as a “productivity meditation”: if something sidetracks me, all I care about is getting focused again. Don’t analyze, don’t criticize, just focus on getting back on track again. Be forgiving with yourself and move on.

The flip side of the coin is that if you’re having many good days in a row this is no guarantee that you’ll have a good day next. So, treat each new day as a new personal mini-challenge: forget past successes and failures. Now is all that matters.

How to Apply this Principle

  • Treat each day as “day zero”: Let go of sunk costs: act like all you have is today. Forget tomorrow and yesterday: focus on doing your best just for today.

  • Don’t fail twice in a row. This is a technique I’ve been trying lately with success. It’s simply an ‘escape clause’: if you fail one time, make it your top priority not to fail for the second time at this task. So, if you missed today’s practice, no big deal. But tomorrow, make that your topmost priority. This guarantees you will get back on track quickly and make you feel terrific again in no time.

Principle 1: You already know what to do.

Let’s face it: most of the time you don’t need a “productivity system” to get stuff done. Although I believe that tools like task lists, goals and tracking sheets can be really useful, the fact is that they’re only that — tools. Just like any other tool, though, they can be misused or become an end in themselves.

Easy goals can distract us from what really matters. Long task lists can be merely a way to show how busy we are, when in fact we’re not sure what to do next. We like spinning our wheels and will go to great lengths to avoid tasks we find unpleasant.

It turns out that, most of the time — right in our guts — we already know what to do. And that’s usually not in our to-do lists or calendars.

No system can force you to do anything. You can “set priorities” and “get organized” but in the end, no matter how sophisticated your lists are, you’ll still need the courage to act on what matters.

How to Apply this Principle

  • Listen to your fears. What are you avoiding? If you’re spending energy avoiding something, you should pay closer attention to it. Learn to identify your tendency to procrastinate and then act on what matters, even if you feel uncomfortable at first.

  • Keep important things in front of you. What is the most important thing you need to do? Write it on a piece of paper and keep it in front of you. Make it hard to escape from it. Get used to making it go away by means of action, not by running away from it.

How do these principles apply to you?

Do these principles resonate with you? Do you have anything to add? What works and what doesn’t for you? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences in the comments!

Also, if you haven’t yet, make sure you check part I of this article, which I pompously called my “Personal Productivity Manifesto” (though, as you can see, is not a fixed set of values by any means…) Thanks!