For many of us, productivity sounds like an intimidating word. Or it’s akin to catching a butterfly. You keep running after it, and just when you think you’ve got it and can bask in its beauty, it slips away from you.
But productivity isn’t about being a workhorse, keeping busy or burning the midnight oil. It’s also not about chasing after elusive goals. It’s more about priorities, planning and fiercely protecting your time.
Three productivity experts dish on the details on what makes some people so productive. (Hint: They’re not innate qualities but instead skills and habits that you can acquire with hard work and effort).
1. They know what’s important.
Like Sara Caputo, MA, productivity coach, consultant and trainer at Radiant Organizing, says, “everything can’t be important.” Highly productive people are able to distinguish between important tasks and trivial ones.
They don’t get bogged down with busy work. In other words, “Productivity is about getting the right things done,” she says.
How do you know what’s important? Caputo says that it’s “all about setting time aside on a daily, weekly, monthly and yearly basis to strategize about [your] goals and values.”
2. They plan their day.
According to Caputo, planning your day the night before helps you “hit the ground running rather than take precious time and figure out where to start.”
3. They’re able to get back on track faster.
If productive people are interrupted or “things don’t go as planned,” “they quickly make decisions to get them back on track or to keep them on track to get those things done that are aligned to what’s most important,” Caputo says.
4. They know their priorities, and protect them.
For one, highly productive people are clear on their direction, says Laura Stack, MBA, president of the consulting company The Productivity Pro® and author of The Six Keys to Perform at Your Productive Best.
Again, they don’t just get things done, they get the right things done, as Caputo says. Stack adds that “value determines priority; priority determines goals; and goals determine activities.”
They also delegate. They don’t spend time on tasks that someone else can do. Instead they focus on “where their energy is best spent,” Caputo says.
Likewise, they know how to “say no, and maintain healthy boundaries,” says Hillary Rettig, productivity coach and author of the forthcoming book The Seven Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism and Writer’s Block. As Stack says, productive “people control their schedules, so they can make time for important activities. They know they can’t be available to everyone every day.”
Saying no, establishing boundaries and delegating are all “nonnegotiable success skills that can be learned and practiced,” Rettig says.
5. They problem-solve.
“Highly productive people respond to barriers, problems and challenges with much more of a problem-solving orientation,” Rettig says. On the other hand, people who are unproductive try to shame and blame themselves into productivity, which only causes more paralysis, she says.
They engage in an inner defeatist dialogue. Rettig gives the following example: “”What’s wrong with you? This is easy! Anyone can do it? Why are you so lazy? And with all the money you just spent on classes! What a loser!”
A better strategy, which productive people use, is to observe what’s happening and find a solution: “Oh, I’m underproductive. That’s interesting. Let’s see what’s going on and how I can fix it.”
6. They arm themselves with the right tools.
Sometimes, we might wait until we’ve truly made it or reached a certain goal until we invest in a better computer, a nicer website, a business coach or (insert any other item or service you’ve been waiting to buy or action you’ve been waiting to take). Productive people surround themselves with the right resources and workspace, Rettig says.
She says that you should “resource yourself abundantly now so as to maximize your productivity and odds of success going forward.”
7. They have laser-like focus.
Productive people are able to concentrate on the task at hand and tune out distractions, Stack says. Like productivity, finding focus isn’t a natural ability. It’s a skill anyone can cultivate. (Here’s 12 ways you can find and foster focus.)
8. They’re well organized.
High productive people “have systems in place to find what they want when they want it, and can quickly locate the information needed to support their activities,” Stacks says.
When you’re disorganized, that extra time spent looking for a phone number, email address or a certain file forces “you to relinquish your focus. Once it’s gone, it takes a while to get it back — and that’s where the real time is wasted,” Stack writes in her e-book, SuperCompetent: The Six Ways to Perform at Your Productive Best. (You can check out her books here).
9. They’re disciplined.
Stack says that highly productive people are able to eliminate time-wasters, take personal responsibility and “strive for constant improvement.” As she writes in her e-book, “It’s about consistently hitting goals, meeting deadlines, fulfilling promises and committing to teamwork.” In a word, it’s about being “accountable.”
10. They keep learning.
If highly productive people don’t know the answer, they work to find it. They “get the requisite skills and training when they lack ability,” Stack says, and “They have the motivation, drive and can-do positivity to make things happen.”