Everyone is capable of achieving high levels of productivity. Including you. But getting from where you are to where you want to be is not always obvious. We developed this guide to help you on your quest.
Where to Begin
Perhaps the best place you can begin to improve your productivity is with your habits. We all have them, both good and bad. Some habits are instrumental for success. Other short-circuit our progress. You have to want to improve those habits to achieve high levels of productivity. Ambition is a virtue, if supported by rational values. But, you must first recognize that you are worthy and capable of improvement.
How do you know which habits are virtuous and which are detrimental? We recommend you start by reading Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Millions have started their journal toward self-development with this book, too much success. The second book we would recommend is Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness, particularly the first chapter (available here for free). While the title of the book may turn some people off, the power of its ideas are essential for understanding why productiveness is necessary for happiness and personal success. She also spells out which primary virtues (aka good habits) facilitate this happiness. Together, these books provide the one-two punch to kick-start your productivity by providing the intellectual foundation and the practical implementation.
How can you make these habits part of your life? It’s important to start small, working on changing one habit at a time. Small changes over time lead to large outcomes through the power of exponential returns. It’s like compound interest on your savings. Small rates of interest compound overtime to make huge dividends in the long-term. Habits have the same effect. Why one habit at a time? For the simple reason that you cannot change everything at once. You inevitably become overwhelmed and regress back to your previous habits. Focusing on one habit makes it very manageable and very quick to establish (around 30 days).
As you work on habits, keep yourself accountable. You can track your progress with daily journals, but for difficult habits, this technique may fail. In our post How to Make Good Habits Inevitable, we suggest using an accountability partner with whom you contact daily, discussing the progress of both of your habits.
As you find your habits improving, you may start to find that doing your best simply doesn’t cut it. To move to the next level of productivity, introspection into your passions will provide the basis for identifying and fulfilling your central purpose in life. Identifying your central purpose in life (which others have called a single motivating purpose) let’s you better derive 5 year goals that are consistent with “you” and therefore enable you to muster the effort to see them through. The 5 year goals guide you in identifying shorter term goals and ultimately turning those goals into action.
A great workbook to help you get started in this process is Ken West’s Get What You Want, which we review here. We also highly recommend this older book – Goal Setting: A Motivational Technique that Works – written by the god-fathers of goal setting, Locke and Latham. Surprising from two academics, the book is both a readable and useful resource on setting goals in your personal life and within organizations.
When setting goals, be sure to make them SMART – specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. In short, avoid vague goals by framing it in terms of specific outcomes that can be objectively measured. Also, be sure the goal is relevant to your life and attainable (but not too easy). Lastly, identify when the goal is due by to create the urgency necessary for you to act to make it a reality.
How do you take your productivity skills to the highest levels? It requires integrating advanced organizational techniques with a deep understanding of the principles behind high effectiveness so that you can self correct. These principles include clear thinking, purposeful work, honesty towards your ideas, justice when judging others, independence in thought, focus on what matters most, ambition toward your values, pride in your thoughts and actions, and respect for reality.
Perhaps the most advanced organizational system for high productivity is outlined in David Allen’s Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity. The strength of this system lies in its ability to tap the brain’s natural strengths, while avoiding its weaknesses. Adopting this productivity system may require radically changing your habits and re-focusing your goals, but it is well worth the time and effort.
To gain a better understanding of what high productivity looks like, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly is perhaps the best resource explaining what goes through the mind of highly successful individuals while they are performing their work. Another invaluable resource on optimal thinking to improve your productivity comes from Your Brain at Work, by David Rock, which we reviewed here.
We also highly recommend you develop the intellectual support to understand why productiveness is virtuous. To this end, How to be Profitable and Moral by Jaana Woiceshyn and Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics by Tara Smith articulate the philosophic reasons and principles for achieving individual and business success. This can help you to understand why your career should come before your family and how to think about work-life boundaries. It can also help you understand why SMART goals are consistent with philosophic principles.