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How to be a more productive person

Written by Sumit Dua, MD, MBA.

In our fast-paced information age, we’re expected to accomplish more and more. To be successful, we have to continuously increase our productivity.

In the industrial age, a worker had to be able to increase his output - companies such as Ford Motors made a science out of this. Today, in this age of technology, the output can’t simply be measured in terms of widgets made per hour. And we can’t just concentrate on one task (making one part of a widget repeatedly). We’re expected to balance many different activities at once. On top of this, we can easily become distracted by social media, the newest iPad applications, the latest gossip, emails and text messages.

We’re going to discuss a few principles to help you accomplish more and live a productive life. These principles are not meant to suggest that you should work all the time nor do these principles apply only to work. They apply to personal life as well. These principles can be used when you’re cleaning your house or working on your hobbies.  I apply these principles to all aspects of life and it has helped me get more done in the limited time that I have. The proof that they work: I have been able to study medicine, concentrate on my hobbies (magic, photography, technology) and balance that with my business interests. Some people feel that they already have too much to do; that they sometimes can’t even finish everything on their daily to-do lists. Yet, they are always amazed at how other people can get so many things done in a day. I often hear,  “I don’t know how you get so much done.” I don’t have any magic formulas, only principles that become much easier to apply with practice.

1.  Understand that productivity is a choice.

Being productive is a choice. It mainly corresponds with attitude - some people feel that they are too busy to get more done or that they simply cannot handle doing more.  For most, this simply isn’t true.  It is this thought process that limits them. We all know individuals that get more done in a day than others get done in a week - yet they both have the same amount of time.  When you look at people like Leonardo da Vinci and Pablo Picasso, who were very productive individuals, you can get a sense of what is possible. I am not suggesting that we can all be as productive as these two geniuses, but think of this as the higher limit instead of what you may believe now.  The other fact is that extremely busy individuals such as doctors, executives, and lawyers are able to accomplish more in personal life (hobbies, fitness, etc) even with their busy work schedules.  Successful individuals understand that they can get these things done and work at it.  And like any other skill, they improve at this over time which leads to increased productivity.

You can make the choice to be productive - when you wake up in the morning, decide that you are going to be productive today.  Have an idea of what you want to accomplish that day - some people like to have a to do list and have 2-3 important things on there that must get done.  Find a system that works for you.  

2.  Know what's important.

You have to know which activities are worth doing.  Not everything is worth your time.  Whatever activities, tasks, or projects that you decide to spend your time on should be related to your overall goals. Understanding your goals and how to set goals is a topic in itself and one that I will discuss in length in its own article.  But it is important to have goals that give you perspective on what is worth accomplishing and guide your limited time.

If a project does nothing to help further your goals - then you should not put that on your plate.  This does not mean that if someone needs help with something that isn’t conducive to your goals that you immediately say no.  However, you should understand how what you are doing relates to your overall goals so you can make better decisions and realize what’s important.

Don’t do things just to stay busy. You have to understand if what you are doing is important or if it just something that’s keeping you busy. This may require brutal honesty - if it is something to just keep you busy - stop.

3.  Do what you love.

A key to success in life is to do what you enjoy. When you are doing what you love and are passionate about, it does not seem like work. This is one of the big secrets to success. Find what drives you; what you’re passionate about. Concentrate on this and you will go far. If you are doing a job that you are unhappy with, find a way to change it. It may not happen over night, but with time and effort, you can change your life.

Some people finish graduate school or long training for a career and feel like they are now stuck in a job they may not like. If you think about it - you may still have a 20-30 year career ahead of you.  It’s not too late. I do realize that you have responsibilities. What I am suggesting is not easy, but know that it can be done.  Many others have done it and you can too.  If it takes 2-3 more years for you to transition into a career you love, then you will be happier for those upcoming 17-27 years.  It’s never too late.  

4.  Prioritize.

Pareto principle (or the 80-20 rule) is a common business axiom that states that 80 percent of the results are due to 20 percent of the factors. In other words, 80 percent of sales come from 20 percent of customers, or 80 percent of profits come from 20 percent of products, etc. The list goes on. Don’t get too caught up on the semantics or on the validity of this statement. The main purpose I mention the 80-20 rule is to highlight that some tasks are more important than others.  Prioritize.  Do the more important tasks and try to get rid of the less important ones.  If it’s not important, don’t do it.  As you take on each responsibility, evaluate its importance. Then go back and evaluate it afterwards until it becomes second nature for you to quickly decide what actually is important.  This strategy gives you the benefit of hindsight - something you thought was important in the moment may not seem important in hindsight.  With time, you will have better foresight into what is actually important.

Once again, knowing which tasks should be priority goes back to number one above - know what’s important to you and how this relates to your overall goals.

5.  Value your time.

Productivity requires that you understand time management.  Like goals, this is a very important topic--one that I will cover in detail.  

Here is what I want you to realize: there is nothing in the world that we all have equally, other than 24 hours in a day. We have different amount of intelligence, different opportunities, and different amounts of wealth.  But 24 hours in a day is all you get. You cannot change this. You can’t give any of the hours away, nor can you buy any. It’s what you do with these 24 hours that actually matters.  

Time is your most valuable asset. In order to be productive, you will have to dedicate time to whatever you find important in life. I find working on Project LIFE and learning medicine to be important, so I dedicate a lot of time to these activities. This means I don’t waste my time on other activities that are not so important to me - hanging out at a bar or club, celebrity gossip, etc.  

The reality is that no one can be productive all the time. You will need downtime. However, many people tend to waste a significant amount of time. There are many distractions: social media, watching television, gossipping, texting, etc. None of these activities are bad and you should do whatever it is that you enjoy. However, you should do these things on a limited basis and use your time wisely to accomplish your goals.

6.  Get it done.

Even after you prioritize and eliminate the non-important, there are tons of important things that we have to do. However, they are not equally important. Some are tasks that must be done and in that is where their importance lies. An email needs a response or an essay for a class assignment needs to be finished. Neither of these will be life changing events. With these sort of tasks, the strategy is to get them done quickly.  You should always try to do a good job, but it does not need to be perfect.  You do not have 30 minutes to draft the perfect email response.  Don’t waste weeks of your time on an assignment, unless it will make a significant difference to your life. Get it done. Move on. Concentrate on the more important things. Do not let “better” be the enemy of “good.”

If you are having trouble with something, apply the time test. Ask, “how will this matter a week from now or a year from now?”  If it really won’t, do your best, get it done and move forward. 

7.  Start and keep moving.

Hardest part about getting something done is actually starting. A lot of time is wasted before we ever start on something. This happens because we don’t want to do something or we find it difficult and don’t know where to start. To avoid this wasted time, it is a good strategy to just start. Often just deciding to start and just starting solves this problem. You may not have the best way of doing something the moment you start, but it much easier than the difficulties that you imagined.

If you are doing something complex - break it down into manageable steps.  Then start on step one. Suppose you have to write a screenplay. This is a huge undertaking and is a bit scary.  However, sit down and break this into steps - create an outline, write a summary (treatment), break it into scenes, write each scene. Now you don’t have to write a screenplay; you just need to write an outline. This is a much more manageable task. Even writing an outline can be broken down further. The idea is to break down complex tasks into manageable steps.

After you start, it is important to just keep moving.  Don’t waste time. Currently, I am supposed to be writing an article on goals (the one I mentioned in knowing what’s important section above). Yet I found it much easier to work on this article at the moment. So instead of wasting time, sitting there, thinking about writing the goals article, I am typing this article. Both need to get done, but go with the step that is coming easier. And just keep working away.

8.  Keep an intense focus.

The way to accomplish tasks is to be intensely focused while you work on them. Intense focus is achievable much more easily in short bursts.  When you decide to work on a task, decide a small amount of time that you will work on it (say 5-10 min) and work on that task intensely.  Over time, this becomes easier and you can stay intensely focused for much longer. And you get much more done in this manner.  With time, you may be able to stay intensely focused for hours at a time.  I learned this during medical school - having to concentrate for hours at a time with no breaks became easier with time.  

In order to say intensely focused, you must eliminate distractions. This means being away from email, phone, and distractions from others. At the beginning, this may be difficult, but you have to realize that it is completely alright if you don’t respond to that email the moment you get it. Your aim is to be productive and you must manage these other responsibilities, but you cannot have them constantly distract you. What I notice is that most people don’t realize how much of their valuable time they waste on these distractions. Their time gets eaten up and the important things do not get done - this leads to stress, lack of productivity, and complete obliviousness to where their time went.  Minimize these distractions and you’ll be ahead. If you feel like you don’t know where your time goes, monitor your time for a day or two so you start to understand what it is that you are doing and make the changes.  

9.  Stay organized.

The ability to stay productive requires that you minimize wasted time. One easy way to waste time is to be disorganized. People tend to waste a lot of time looking for things or trying to find a file etc that they need. All this can be eliminated if you have a system to stay organized that works.  It is a wise investment to learn and devise an organized system. This is another area that is important and we will cover in detail.

10.  Procrastinate.

It may sound weird that I'm telling you to procrastinate in an article on productivity, but let me explain. As crazy as it might seem, procrastination is a principle that I live by. It has actually increased my productivity in a tremendous way and has freed up my time so I can do more of the things I love doing. I'll describe this in a bit more detail so you don't get confused:

Suppose you have an essay due in a week. If you start on that essay today - it will take you a week to write - that’s a guarantee. The task tends to fill up the time allotted for that task. If you start the essay two days before its due, you will get it done in two days. You have to, you don’t have a choice at that point. The pressure of getting it done will make you stay productive and you will dedicate the time required to get it done. The remainder of the time that you have available can be utilized to accomplish other things that you find important.  

This principle isn’t as easy as it sounds to put into practice. Suppose your essay is due Monday morning and you need to visit the library to do some research which happens to be closed over the weekend, then starting two days before is a disastrous strategy. Similarly, you have to know how long it will take you to complete a certain project - if you are bad at judging the time required, it will lead to increased stress not increased productivity. However as with any skill, after you practice this a while, you will become a good judge of how you work--how long it takes for you to complete something or how well you work under that pressure.  

This is a difficult principle to put into practice and make it work properly. However, once you do use it, the principle is actually very useful. I recommend you slowly practice and integrate this - maybe choose tasks at first that are not critical. This way, you will be able to see how things are and how you function. As you learn to judge your time and efficiency better as well as how long it actually takes to finish a project (something I think people tend to underestimate), you can expand this to other areuas of your life.

Well those are the “secrets,” these are the principles that work.  It will help you finish your work faster and stay productive.  With practice, these become easier to apply.  I suggest picking one or two and consciously applying these to your life.  Monitor how this is going and make relevant adjustments.  Come back and skim through this article every once in a while to help jog your memory and think a bit about these principles more after you have a chance to apply them.  

Again, this article is not to suggest that you should be working all the time or that being productive every waking moment should be the goal.  This is to help you utilize your valuable time and finish your work faster, so that you have more time to do things that are important to you.  I mention this because some online authors who promoted these strategies have found a new trend of writing about not being productive and how freeing it is when you don’t have to be productive.  I am not sure if this is so they have something new to write or if they had misunderstood the purpose of these principles.  The goal isn’t to be productive for productivity’s sake, it is to be productive to achieve whatever it is that you want.  These are just tools, so do not mistake them as the purpose.     

Sumit Dua, MD, MBA
Sumit Dua, MD, MBA

Sumit Dua is the founder and CEO of Project LIFE, Inc.  Sumit attended the University of California San Diego for undergraduate studies, where he majored in Biochemistry & Cell Biology and in Psychology. He went on to attend the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine for his M.D. and the Marshall School of Business for a.. Read more

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