I recently interviewed more than 200 ultra-productive people: seven billionaires, 13 Olympians, 20 straight-A students and more than 200 successful entrepreneurs. I asked them a simple, open-ended question: “What is your No. 1 secret to productivity?” After analyzing their responses, I coded their answers into 15 unique ideas.
SECRET #1: They focus on minutes, not hours
Average performers default to hour and half-hour blocks on their calendar. Highly successful people know where each of the 1,440 minutes in a day goes, and they know there is nothing more valuable than time. Money can be lost and made again, but time spent can never be reclaimed. Olympic gymnast Shannon Miller told me, “To this day, I keep a schedule that is almost minute by minute.” You must master your minutes to master your life.
SECRET #2: They focus only on one thing
Ultra-productive people know their Most Important Task (MIT) and work on it for one to two hours each morning, without interruptions. Tom Ziglar, CEO of Ziglar Inc., shared, “Invest the first part of your day working on your No. 1 priority that will help build your business.” What task will have the biggest impact on reaching your goal? What accomplishment will get you promoted at work?
SECRET #3: They don’t use to-do lists
Throw away your to-do list; instead, schedule everything on your calendar. It turns out only 41% of items on to-do lists are ever actually done. And all those items that aren’t done lead to stress and insomnia because of the Zeigarnik effect. Highly productive people put everything on their calendar and work and live from that calendar. Jordan Harbinger, co-founder of The Art of Charm, advises, “Use a calendar and schedule your entire day into 15-minute blocks. It sounds like a pain, but this will set you up in the 95th percentile.”
SECRET #4: They beat procrastination with time travel
Your future self can’t be trusted. That’s because we are “time inconsistent.” We buy veggies today because we think we’ll eat healthy salads all week, then we throw out rotting green mush in the future. I bought P90x because I thought I would start exercising vigorously, yet the box sits unopened one year later. What can you do right now to make sure your future self does the right thing? Anticipate how you will self-sabotage in the future and come up with a solution to defeat your future self.
SECRET #5: They make it home for dinner
I first learned this secret from Intel’s Andy Grove, who told me, “There is always more to be done, more that should be done, always more than can be done.” Highly successful people know what they value in life. Yes, they value work, but what else should they value? There is no right answer, but, for many, values include family time, exercise and giving back. They allocate their 1,440 minutes a day to every area they value (i.e., they put it on their calendar), and then they stick to the schedule.
SECRET #6: They use a notebook
Richard Branson has said on more than one occasion that he wouldn’t have been able to build Virgin without a simple notebook, which he takes with him wherever he goes. In one interview, Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis said, “Always carry a notebook. Write everything down…That is a million-dollar lesson they don’t teach you in business school!” Ultra-productive people free their mind by writing everything down.
SECRET #7: They process email only a few times a day
Ultra-productive people don’t check their email throughout the day. They don’t respond to each vibration or ding to see who has intruded into their inbox. Instead, like everything else, they schedule time to process their email quickly and efficiently. For some, that’s only once a day; for me, it’s morning, noon and night.
SECRET #8: They avoid meetings at all costs
When I asked Mark Cuban to give me his best productivity advice, he quickly responded, “Never take meetings unless someone is writing a check.” Meetings are notorious time killers. They start late, have the wrong people in them, meander in their topics and run long. You should get out of meetings whenever you can and hold fewer of them yourself. If you do run a meeting, keep it short.
SECRET #9: They say “no” to almost everything
Billionaire Warren Buffett once said, “The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.” James Altucher colorfully gave me this tip: “If something is not a ‘hell, yeah!’, then it’s a ‘no!’ ” Remember, you only have 1,440 minutes in every day. Don’t give them away easily.
SECRET #10: They follow the 80/20 rule
Known as the Pareto Principle, in most cases 80% of outcomes come from 20% of activities. Ultra-productive people know which activities drive the greatest results, and they focus on those and ignore the rest.
SECRET #11: They delegate almost everything
Ultra-productive people don’t ask, “How can I do this task?” Instead, they ask, “How can this task get done?” They take the “I” out of situations as much as possible. Ultra-productive people don’t have control issues and are not micro-managers. In many cases, good enough is, well, good enough.
SECRET #12: They create themes for days of the week
Highly successful people often “theme” days of the week to focus on major areas. For decades, I’ve had “Mondays for Meetings” to make sure I’m doing one-on-one check-ins with each direct report. My Friday afternoons are themed around financials and general administrative items I want to clean up before the new week starts. I’ve previously written about Jack Dorsey’s work themes, which enable him to run two companies at once. Batch your work to maximize your efficiency and effectiveness.
SECRET #13: They touch things only once
How many times have you opened a piece of regular mail—a bill, perhaps—and put it down, only to deal with it again later? How often do you read an email and close it, leaving it in your inbox to deal with later? Highly successful people try to “touch it once.” If it takes less than five or 10 minutes—whatever it may be—they’ll deal with it right then and there. This reduces stress because it isn’t in the back of their mind, and it is more efficient because they won’t have to re-read or reevaluate the item in the future.
SECRET #14: They practice a consistent morning routine
My single greatest surprise while interviewing these more than 200 highly successful people was how many of them wanted to share their morning ritual with me. Hal Elrod, author of The Miracle Morning, told me, “While most people focus on ‘doing’ more to achieve more, The Miracle Morning is about focusing on ‘becoming’ more so that you can start doing less, to achieve more.” While I heard about a wide variety of habits, most people I interviewed nurtured their body in the morning with water, a healthy breakfast and light exercise. They nurtured their mind with meditation or prayer, inspirational reading and journaling.
SECRET #15: Energy is everything
You can’t make more minutes in the day, but you can increase your energy—which will increase your attention, focus, decision-making and overall productivity. Highly successful people don’t skip meals, sleep or take breaks in the pursuit of more, more, more. Instead, they view food as fuel and sleep as recovery, and they pause with “work sprints.”
Tying It All Together
You might not be an entrepreneur, Olympian or millionaire—or even want to be—but their secrets just might help you get more done in less time and help you to stop feeling so overworked and overwhelmed.