Habits of Highly Productive People: What Efficient People Have in Common

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You probably didn’t go to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — but an MIT can help you be more productive.

The theory behind Most Important Tasks is that any given to-do list has some tasks that are more important than others. If you focus on simply checking off to-do list items, you’ll end up with a mix of important and less important tasks completed.

It also exposes you to the potential for procrastination — it’s easy to spend the whole day checking off easy, less important to-dos instead of buckling down on the hard stuff.

Instead, spend a few minutes at the beginning of your day to choose 1–3 MITs — the things that, no matter what, you need to finish by the end of the day.

With a renewed focus on what’s important, it’s easier to create a meaningful to-do list — make sure the important things get done.

Laura Earnest of Whole Life Productivity had this to say on the importance of prioritization as a productivity habit:

“Let me say that I distinguish between efficient and effective, but that both are needed for peak productivity. Efficient is doing things right and effective is doing the right things. So the most productive people work on the high value tasks, making sure that how they are doing those tasks is the best way.

I also believe that the most productive people are able to discern which are the high value tasks, and are able to either let the others go or delegate them. It’s not a crazy rush to get everything done, because they recognize that they can’t get everything done.”

2. Cultivate deep work

Productivity tip – cultivate deep work (even if it means saying no more often)

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Some tasks are just hard. There’s no substitute for deep work.

Everybody has a few daily to-dos that could be almost be knocked out while sleeping. These are the tasks that you need podcasts to get through — if anything, they’re hard to get yourself to do because they’re not especially interesting.

At the same time, some tasks are just difficult. You can’t multitask your way to finishing them. You need to devote serious time and mental effort to knocking them out of the park. These tasks are called “deep work.”

Cal Newport wrote about this type of work in his bestselling book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Newport argues that the skill of intense focus is increasingly rare—and that those who can master it are at an enormous advantage.

A few of Newport’s recommendations to cultivate deep work are:

Schedule deep work: Plan deep work into your schedule at a similar time every day, probably in the morning. Having a regular time to do deep work helps you make it a habit.

Get bored: It sounds counterintuitive to call being bored a productive habit, but being comfortable with boredom is important. Deep work isn’t always enjoyable, and boredom or frustration are what cause us to seek out distractions. Avoid using social media for entertainment as much as possible, and get more comfortable doing nothing.

Be harder to contact: Email and other distractions can be reduced by asking people who contact you to do more work up front. Ask people to research their questions before coming to you, and provide as much info as possible in their emails. Same goes for you—spending time on communications instead of dashing off a quick email can minimize back and forth.

Know your work habits: Do you work best in isolation? With periodic breaks? Are you working around a hectic schedule? You don’t need to overhaul your entire schedule—just set aside some time for deep work.

Highly productive people have mastered the skill of deep work.

3. Keep a distraction list to stay focused

Productivity tip – keep a distraction list, to jot down ideas you think of while you’re working

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With emails, social media, and a thousand little to-dos, it’s easy to get distracted when you’re trying to be productive.

Whether you’re trying to focus on deep work or just dealing with smaller tasks, distractions are the bane of productivity. It’s hard to maintain efficient work habits with distractions around.

One powerful method of reducing distractions is creating a “distraction list.”

productivity habits for distraction

Keep this list — whether it’s a Google Doc or a physical piece of paper — nearby while you’re working. Whenever a distracting thought pops up, write it down on the list and get back to work.

This technique, which is one of the secrets to the Pomodoro Technique, is powerful because a lot of the time your distractions legitimately require attention.

If I’m doing deep work and suddenly remember a bill that needs to be paid, or have an idea for a new blog post, those are thoughts that deserve attention.

They just don’t deserve it right now.

As thoughts arise during your work, jot them down. Once you reach a break in your work, you can come back and either tackle them or add them to your larger to-do list.

4. Use the Eisenhower Matrix to identify long-term priorities

Productivity tip – use the Eisenhower Matrix to find your important but not urgent tasks

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One of the dangers of productivity is a focus on the short term. As management legend Peter Drucker once said, “there is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” When you study productivity habits, it’s easy to fall into that trap.

On any given work day, it’s easy to get caught up in things that seem important right now.

The Eisenhower Matrix, used by Dwight Eisenhower to make decisions during his time as a general, was popularized by Stephen Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It helps you to quickly determine what you should work on and what you should ignore.

To create an Eisenhower Matrix, make a 2 x 2 square. On one axis, write “important” and “not important.” On the other, “urgent” and “not urgent.”

Eisenhower MatrixSource: Develop Good Habits

Organizing your to-do list based on each task’s importance and urgency can help you identify time-sinks that aren’t worth it.

Are you spending most of your day doing things that are urgent but not important? Look for ways to delegate, automate, or eliminate.

Are you spending time on things that aren’t important or urgent? Ignore those things.

Are you making time to work on things that are important but not urgent? If you’re like most people, you could be spending more time in this quadrant. The Eisenhower Matrix makes it easier to see what matters and what doesn’t.

5. Use the 80/20 rule

Productivity tip – use the 80/20 rule to focus your time on the most impactful tasks

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Another way to prioritize tasks comes from the 80/20 principle.

Discovered by Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, the 80/20 rule (also called the Pareto Principle) states that, in any pursuit, 80% of the results will come from 20% of the efforts.

To maximize efficiency, highly productive people identify the most important 20% of their work. Then, they look at ways to cut down the other 80% of their schedule, to find more time for the things that make the biggest impact.

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