The 10 Counterintuitive Rules of Productivity

It's no secret that we all want to get more done.

The problem is … most of us simply don't know how to be productive.

Even worse, with so many tips, tricks, hacks, and apps out it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Ironically, our search for productivity can actually make less productive than before.

That’s why -- to cut through the clutter, myths, and misinformation -- I’ve put together this list of ten counterintuitive (and scientifically proven) rules of productivity.

1. Start at the End

The first rule of productivity is simple: know what you want.

That might sound obvious, so why call it "counterintutive"? Because it's staggering how few of us can clearly identify what we really want for ourselves, for our relationships, and for our work. The truth is until you get your head straight about the big picture stuff -- your overarching vision -- the little things don't stand a chance.

How do you “start at the end”? First, begin with singularity, or least by limiting your goals. As Dustin Wax explains in The Science of Setting Goals:

The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

Next, write them down. Writing clarifies your thinking and invites accountability. Last, make sure your goals are driven by emotion: there's nothing more useless than a toothless goal like, "I want to be happy." True enough. But what feeds your soul?

2. Use Fewer Tools

I was tempted to call this point: “Stay Organized.” But there’s nothing counter-intuitive about that. In fact, the centrality of organization is exactly why we're bombarded by tools of every size, share, and digital color.

And that's where “counter-intuitive” comes into play: the tools we use to be productive are often part of the reason we’re not.

The more we spread ourselves across different list makers, communication channels, storage platforms, and time management apps, the less we get done.

Applying this rule means looking for “meta-tools” that combine functions that you currently use multiple apps to manage. memit, for instance, is a new favorite of mine that replaced a host of clipping, storing, and sharing tools that I used to manage separately.

Likewise, limiting yourself to just one communication tool, just one workflow tool, and just one cloud storage platform, while initially painful, pays off huge.

3. Kill your inbox

One of the biggest drains to your time, focus, and energy is your inbox. As early as 2012, US workers spent roughly one-fourth of everyday reading, deleting, and responding to email. Today, the total number of daily business emails exceeds 112 billion.

Killing your inbox means two things.

First, don’t focus on achieving “inbox zero.” There’s nothing worse that clearing out everything only to realize you’ve spent an hour or two on a task that accomplished … nothing.

Second, set daily boundaries for yourself in which to read and respond emails. Control your inbox. Don’t let your inbox control you.

4. Challenge Yourself

One of the biggest mistakes people make trying to be productive is focusing on the easiest and most comfortable tasks first.

While this may seem natural, productive people do the exact opposite. Instead, they start of with the hardest and most fear-inducing tasks.


Practically speaking, several studies have demonstrated that willpower is higher in the morning or at the beginning of your work day. In other words, the best time to do the things you don’t want to do ... is first.

Also, getting the ugliest tasks on your list checked off gives you feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction. These early wins enable you to enjoy the rest of your day by doing the tasks you actually look forward to.

Remember the words of Mark Twain:

Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.

5. Invite Accountability

Inviting accountability began with writing down your goals in rule one – i.e., the big picture “ends” of what you really want. While that's a great first step, it's not enough. Once you have a list of manageable and emotionally charged goals, inviting another person to hold you accountable is a must.

This can be uncomfortable, but with another person looking over your shoulder you and asking you tough questions, you’re far more likely to actually achieve them.

How much more likely? One weight-loss study revealed that “people who posted progress photos documenting their weight loss lost 1.2 lbs. per week, compared to 0.27 lbs. lost when they didn’t use the sharing platform.” That's a 344% increase.

6. Be grateful

We have a tendency to think that angst, fear, and disappoint all breed productivity. However, a positive mind is always more productive than a negative one.

In fact, it’s been proven time and time again that gratitude in the workplace is one of the strongest motivational tools you can cultivate. We all need to feel appreciate.

Geoffrey James goes so far as to call gratitude the “true secret to success,” explaining:

I'm utterly convinced that the key to lifelong success is the regular exercise of a single emotional muscle: gratitude.

The more regularly you practice this exercise, the stronger its effects.

Over time, your "gratitude muscle" will become so strong that you'll attract more success into your life, not to mention greater numbers of successful (i.e., grateful) people.

7. Get physical

All great leaders – from Barack Obama to Warren Buffett to Oprah Winfrey – have one thing in common: they devote at least 30 minutes a day to physical activities.

Why? Because physical activities stimulate your brain and produce endorphins, which go hand in hand with good memory and learning. In addition, they help you think more clearly.

Contrary to popular practice, the worst thing you can when you wake up is to check out your email, plan your day, or think about what you're going to do because all those things make you get stressed. If you want a more productive day, start with your body … not your mind.

For example, Ellen DeGeneres starts her mornings with 60 to 90 minutes of Yoga. Similarly, Nancy Pelosi takes a 45-minute walk around the Potomac River every morning.

To be more productive, start your day with physical activity.

8. Breathe

Sounds simple, right? Just. Breath.

Sadly -- for both our physical and mental health -- most people don't know how to breathe properly.

The first mistake we make is breathing with our mouths instead of our noses. That's a huge no-no because mouth breathing doesn’t oxygenate your blood as effectively as nose breathing. The result is less brain power and less focus.

Second, most people don't know any breathing techniques to help them get relaxed.

It's scientifically proven that diaphragmatic breathing is the best way to cure tensions, relax your muscles, and help you concentrate. Developing an intimate, cultivated, and disciplined relationship with your breath pays huge productivity dividends.

9. Use the word “no” … a lot

As Warren Buffet famously claimed:

The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say no to almost everything.

If you don't learn to say no, it’s inevitably that your day-to-day life -- like some gaping black hole -- will suck in all manner of time-consuming tasks that don't give you results.

That's why you need to be committed to your “end.” Rule number one is rule number one for a reason. Anything that doesn’t get you closer to you what you really want should be met with one word: “No.”

10. Stop working

This point is a shocker: in order to be more productive you need to stop working.

Most of us feel the exact opposite, but the world’s most brilliant ideas have all emerged while people were “doing nothing.” As Emma Seppala said: “The trick to self-mastery actually lies in the opposite of control: effortlessness, relaxation and well-being.”

When should you stop working?

Simple, when you feel like you don't have enough time to rest.

Productivity increases if you rest between 10 and 20 minutes every two hours of work. If you do that, you'll think clearly, reduce your stress, and be able to focus far more effectively when you do go back to work.

Counter-intuitive, I know. But then again, so are the rest.


testPromoTitleReplace testPromoDekReplace Join HuffPost Today! No thanks.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.