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Seeking the Holy Grail of Productivity

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People often talk about “things that aren’t taught in school”: money management, fixing your car, et cetera. But there’s one thing that isn’t taught and no one mentions it, but is of just as crucial importance: productivity.

Productivity, which is loosely defined as “stuff that gets done divided by time spent on stuff”, is the holy grail of the working world. Employees who do it well are lauded, and managers spend millions to improve it. Unfortunately, being productive in school is entirely different than in the workplace.

One may argue, “in school you to work really hard and get things done on time – that’s learning to be productive” and that’s true to a certain extent. However, school has two built-in productivity advantages that don’t translate to work:

For one, students have virtually unlimited time. Other than the 2 to 6 hours spent each day in class, students can spend as much time (or as little) as they want on school. If a student is unprepared for a test, they can pull an all-nighter. If they have a project due soon, they can even skip class to get it done. There is no constraint on the bottom half of the equation, time spent on stuff. Although many students lament this very fact, it is a luxury in the world of productivity.

Students also have a built-in prioritization system, whether they realize it or not. Tasks are given weighted percentages (e.g. This assignment is 20% of your mark) and hard deadlines. A student can intuitively reverse-engineer their priorities based on these numbers. For example, an assignment worth 30%, due in 10 days, would have a “priority score” of 30/10 = 3, whereas an assignment worth 20% due in 1 day would be 20/1 = 20. The second one would be given higher priority. I believe most students subconsciously do this mental arithmetic, which automatically prioritizes the top half of the equation, stuff that gets done.

In the workplace, both these advantages no longer hold true. Often, you’re given a whole host of different tasks, and if you’re lucky they’ll have deadlines, but they certainly won’t have pre-calculated weights of importance. And it’s no longer acceptable to pull all-nighters or skip meetings to get things done. Although your work ethic might be appreciated, companies simply can’t afford to have you take five hours to do something that takes one. Whether you’re on salary, wage or running your own business, you operate within the constraints of paid productivity.

For many new grads, including myself, this can be incredibly overwhelming. I spent my first 3 months on the job erratically zipping from task to email to project to meeting, completing 10% of each without ever finishing anything. I was working hard, 10+ hour days, and part of me felt like I was “getting a lot done.” But at the end of the most days I wouldn’t be able to honestly tell you what I finished. And my day wouldn’t end – I’d come home and think about all the emails I need to crank out. It was a little like drowning. In talking with my peers, I know I’m not the only one who has felt this.

Since then, I’d like to think I’ve turned it around. Although there is always room for improvement, I am now confident in the amount and quality of work I’m getting done in a given day. Moreso than just the work, I’ve got my sanity back and am able to have some equilibrium in my life. There are three main reasons for this drastic change in productivity:


My work team implemented a 10-minute daily “scrum”, or stand-up meeting, with the following format:

  1. Achievements from yesterday
  2. Key metrics
  3. Roadblocks
  4. Priorities for today

This may sound like a small thing, and it’s counterintuitive to think more meetings = more productivity, but this quick check-in saved 90% of emails that I would’ve had to previously send to my peers. The best books on this topic are Scaling Up and Scrum: The Art Of Doing Twice The Work In Half The Time.

Task management

Previously, my inbox was my task manager. Everything I had to do was in Gmail, and when I was finished something I archived it. Sometimes this involved sending notes to myself to make sure I got things done.This is horribly inefficient. Some emails are quick to-dos, and some are major projects. As you can imagine, by working out of my inbox I end up clearing off a lot of quick to-dos (urgent) without ever tackling big projects (important). And they all lack built-in structures like deadlines and progressions. To change this, I used 3 tools:

  • Dayboard. This Chrome extension allows you to set your top 5 priorities for a day (and no more) and shows them to you every time you open a new tab. It carries over tasks you don’t complete each day, and it doesn’t let you schedule tasks more than a day out. This keeps you laser-focused on what you need to really get done.
  • Trello. Trello is a project management app that I use for any task with multiple steps. This includes emails that I’m not able to deal with right away. Through Trello, I’m able to assign a timeline, recruit help from others, and break tasks down into chunkable steps. This keeps me out of my inbox and helps me see the bigger picture.Note: although Trello is what my current company uses, its focus is actually on larger, development-based projects. Other task management tools that I’ve heard good things about are ThingsWorkflowyEvernote, and Todoist.
  • Boomerang. Some emails need to be sent, responded to, or followed up on; but not that that day. Boomerang just clears the message out of your inbox and returns it to you at a date you specify. This keeps your inbox clean and acts as a great reminder/follow-up tool.


It’s a parable that’s been used to the point of cliche, but it still rings true:

Charles Schwab, president of Bethlehem Steel, wanted to increase his own efficiency, and of the management team at the steel company. Ivy Lee, a well-known efficiency expert of the time, approached Mr. Schwab, and made a proposition Charles Schwab could not refuse:

Ivy Lee: “I can increase your people’s efficiency – and your sales – if you will allow me to spend fifteen minutes with each of your executives.”

Charles Schwab: “How much will it cost me?”

Ivy Lee: “Nothing, unless it works. After three months, you can send me a check for whatever you feel it’s worth to you.”

Charles Schwab: “It’s a deal.”

Each Bethlehem executive consented to follow Lee’s instructions. Three months later, Schwab studied the results and was so pleased that he sent Lee a check for US$35,000. At the time, the average worker in the US was being paid $2 per day.

This lesson in prioritizing can be a hard thing to accept when you are under a deluge of emails. But I’ve seen great results in setting priorities for the day, and then “chunking” them into time slots where I can really dig into them. Here’s what an ideal average work day looks for me:

  • 8:30 to 9:00am: Check key metrics, email, and social, then set priorities for the day on Dayboard (these are pulled either from my inbox or from Trello)
  • 9:00 to 9:50am: “Email clearout” – aim to have everything in my inbox either replied to, Boomeranged, or converted to a Trello card
  • 9:50 to 10:00am: Scrum
  • 10:00 to 12:00pm: Hack away at the days’ priorities with limited email access
  • 12:00 to 12:30pm: Lunch
  • 3:00 to 6:00am: Finished the priorities
  • 6:00pm onwards: Done for the day

I’m definitely far from perfect at this, but having this structure in mind is hugely beneficial. One of the biggest benefits of this change is when I’m done my day, I can actually feel done. So when I go home I’m fully able to unplug; I rarely check email on my phone or home computer anymore.To me, this is the true holy grail of productivity. Not just a better stuff per time, but the ability to relax at the end of the day knowing you’ve done what needs doing. I’ve listed a host of methods for doing that above, and I think they’re the best ones, but it’s not so much about the methods used as the process of consideration. Being an active engineer of your workflow creates a far better lifestyle than just getting stuff done fast.

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