One of the best ways to distinguish yourself at work is through productivity. We’re all sifting through too much email, we all have more work than we can ever get done, and we all have access to more information than we could ever consume.

The people who make the best decisions about how to process this information quickly and effectively are the people who will stand out in the workplace.

Productivity Is a Skill

It used to be that people went to work from 9 to 5, and if you were serious about your career you worked much longer hours. But few people still aspire to a 9-to-5 job, and most of us use productivity tools to manage our time in a way that facilitates a great personal life and a great work life.

Thousands of people read productivity tips on every day of the week, and dissect David Allen’s bestselling book Getting Things Done with the fervor of an English lit student explicating Ulysses.

Productivity skills are a new measure of career potential, so you need to develop them. Here are five suggestions for how to excel at productivity.

1. Do the most important thing first.

Gina Trapani, the editor of, calls this a “morning dash.” She sits down at her desk and does the No. 1 item on her to-do list so that she knows it’s finished.

This requires a lot of prior planning. You need to write an accurate, prioritized list and you need to block out a portion of your morning to accomplish your No. 1 task uninterrupted.

The hardest thing about living by a to-do list is that you have to constantly ask yourself the difficult question, “What’s the most important thing to me right now?”

A good to-do list includes long-term and short-term projects, and it integrates all aspects of your life. “Pick out lawn furniture” is on the same list at “go to the board meeting” because both are competing for the same, limited amount of your time.

2. Keep your inbox empty.

Your inbox is not your to-do list; your to-do list is something you compile and prioritize. If your inbox is your to-do list, then you have no control over what you’re doing — you’ve ceded it to whoever sends you an email next.

Productivity wizards experience less information overload because they deal with an email as soon as they’ve read it — respond, file, or delete. Nothing stays in the inbox. Reading each email four or five times while it languishes in your inbox is a huge waste of time, and totally impractical given the amount of email we all receive.

3. Become a realist about time.

You can schedule and schedule and schedule, but it won’t do any good unless you get more realistic about time. Develop a sense of who in your life is good at estimating time and who isn’t, because you need to be able to compensate for the people who mess up your schedule with poor time estimates.

In general, though, we’re all bad at estimating time. We overestimate how much time we have and cope poorly with the fact that what we do with our time changes from day to day. So the first step toward being good at estimating time is to understand your own inherent weaknesses. Then, at least, you can start compensating.

4. Focus on what you’re doing so you can do it faster and better.

Most of the time, multitasking doesn’t help you. It works for short, repetitive tasks that you’re very familiar with. But you don’t want to develop good work habits for boring work. You’d probably prefer to stretch your brain and try new things, and that kind of work requires focus.

A wide range of research has shown that even if you can talk on the phone and use email and IM at the same time, multitasking decreases your productivity. Our creative powers are compromised when we multitask.

The other common culprit to focusing is lack of sleep. Some people think they can use caffeine to dull the need for sleep, but it catches up with them. Fortunately, you only need a 10-minute nap to get your brain back on track. And when you’re making up for several nights of lost sleep, you don’t need to make it all up — you just need seven hours to get back on your game.

5. Delegate.

Once you know what’s most important to you in all aspects of your life, you’ll know what to delegate. And the answer will be almost everything. The hardest part of productivity is admitting that you can’t do everything.

In fact, it’s the core of what being an adult is — as a child, everything looks possible. Adults are hit quickly with the cold reality that they can only do what’s most important. So be very clear on what that is, and delegate as much of the other stuff as you can.

At work, good delegating doesn’t mean dumping your worst tasks on your co-workers. In fact, you often need to delegate your most appealing work and do some of the grunt work yourself. Because in the end, your No. 1 productivity goal is to get what’s important done — it doesn’t matter who gets it done, and you’re more likely to get a lot of help if you offer your fun stuff.

This holds true for your home life, too — you can delegate a lot more at home than you think you can without losing the things you care about most.

Productive to the Core

The core of productivity is self-knowledge, which is emotional intelligence.

You have to know what you want most in order to know what to do first, and you have to know your goals before you can productively meet them.

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5 replies
  1. Greg
    Greg says:

    Coming right after your “Lists” blog; pretty slick!

    I went back and read “Save what matters by delegating what doesn't” and “Most misunderstood aspect of delegating at work.” All great stuff. Thanks.

  2. Brady Bagwan
    Brady Bagwan says:

    Delegation is definitely a critical success factor in today’s time-starved world. For those that don't have a staff, who do you delegate to? One way to overcome this is to use a personal assistant service. I just started a company called Delegate Source based in Denver. While there are quite a few concierge services out there, there are very few who approach lifestyle and household management broadly. It really is simple math. If a professional’s hourly cost is more than the cost of outsourcing personal services, why not achieve a better work/life balance by delegating errands and tasks?

  3. Brady
    Brady says:

    What about delegating housekeeping or cleaning to a maid? There was an article in Real Simple magazine’s October 2010 edition about guilt in delegating this task.

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