It’s telling that some of the most popular blogs focus on productivity. I learned this when I interviewed productivity gurus about their best time-management tips last year and it became the post that bloggers link to most often on Brazen Careerist.

How to get more things done is a hot topic for younger workers especially, and one that has seemingly endless angles. That’s because young people are good at multitasking, and yet feel as though true productivity goes a step further than simply working feverishly on more than one task at the same time.

Here are six productivity-blogger tips with some new takes on the old idea of blowing through your to-do list to feel good about your day. What’s interesting to note is that each piece of advice actually encourages people to get more done by slowing down to focus rather than multitasking nonstop:

Having goals is more important than the content of the goals

Productivity should be aimed at meeting goals rather than merely keeping up with one’s to-do list. It’s a question of the big picture versus the little picture, and we need to be sure to have some big-picture ideas about our life or we won’t be able to steer it.

So often, though, we don’t set goals because we’re worried they’ll change. But they’ll change regardless, and we don’t want the same things throughout our whole lives anyway. As Eric Nehrlich says on his blog Unrepentant Generalist, “The particular goals aren’t as important as the process of setting goals and working to meet them.”

Knowing you can meet goals encourages you to set more, and setting more encourages more conscious thinking about what you’re doing. That may well be the very core of productivity.

• Get information at scheduled times

In a world where most of us are knowledge workers, the person who’s best at taking in information and synthesizing it is going to stand out. The last thing you’d want to do, then, is stop taking in information. But there’s limitless information, so you have to set your own limits.

Tiffany Monhollon at Little Red Suit suggests scheduling when precisely you take in your information. This means that it doesn’t interrupt you constantly, which really undermines productivity, but it also doesn’t elude you, which is the sure way to become obsolete in the workforce.

• Make your to-do list doable

A lot of us get stuck because everything on our to-do list is daunting. As Gina Trapani explains at Lifehacker, each of us has two selves — the boss and the assistant. The boss self comes up with things that are cool to do, as well as things that are awful to do but that need to get done anyway. The assistant self has to execute all of it, and sometimes the boss self makes life impossible for the assistant self.

Ideas that have no execution strategy, projects that have 50 (or more) steps, and administrative tasks that aren’t essential all drive your assistant self crazy. Trapani explains how to make sure your boss self and assistant self are working together to create a to-do list that doesn’t stop you in your tracks.

You actually need to put a lot of thought into how you manage yourself. Maybe that’s why the best reader for this column is your philosopher self.

• Do something you’re passionate about

Every Monday, Zen Habits‘ Leo Babauta blogs about productivity and organization. That in itself is a great productivity lesson: If you schedule something important for certain days or certain times each day, you’ll get into the habit of getting the important things done.

Zen Habits’ No. 1 productivity tip is to do something you’re passionate about. Why? Because when you’re enthusiastic about something you’re better at it, and you don’t mind trying harder and putting more time into it. It’s the work you don’t really want to do that you put off or do slowly and without much attention.

• Do important tasks instead of urgent ones

Steve Pavlina shows how to make a distinction between the important tasks and the urgent tasks on your to-do list. Examples of important items on your list could be learning new skills, finding a new relationship (or working on the one you have), or starting a new project. Note that these items are for you, not for someone waiting for a response to your e-mail. Steve calls this paying yourself first.

Ask yourself if it will matter in five years whether you did a particular task or not. Taking that class you’ve always wanted to take passes the test — it’ll surely matter in five years. On the other hand, not answering that e-mail from an impatient coworker right this minute probably won’t matter in five years.

What does this have to do with productivity? You can’t be truly productive if you’re wearing yourself out by taking care of other people’s needs. If you decide that 5 out of 10 things on your to-do list won’t really be important in the long run, then you’ll be much more productive by making time to work on those less-urgent but more-important items first.

• Focus on outcome

Just because you’re getting something done doesn’t mean it matters. In the long run, you’ll feel better about the time you spend if you’re making a difference with the outcome.

We often put things on our to-do list that take much more time to accomplish than they’re worth, but we focus so much on getting them done that we don’t think about if they were worth the time.

Chris Michel has an equation for this on his blog Found|Read: Take the desired outcome (value) and divide it by actions (cost), and you have the return on your investment (time). Michael theorizes that looking at tasks this way will inspire you to come up with ways to get to the outcome with fewer wasted actions.

Timing Is Everything

As you try to implement new productivity tactics in your life, keep in mind a study from the Center for Creative Leadership that says we each have ways of doing things that are hardwired, and if we get stressed out we’ll revert to those ways.

So even though it’s tempting to try new productivity methods when you need them the most, you’ll have more success making the switch if you wait until a relatively calm period of your life.

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8 replies
  1. Nina
    Nina says:

    Penelope, those are good pointers. One technique that I swear by is the "touch it once" rule. I like to complete things and move on to the next task so typically it's easy for me to curb those multitasking tendencies. I admit, sometimes my productivity is at the expense of quality (my partner calls me "shortcuts") – but I get things done.

  2. Fran
    Fran says:

    It’s true about to-do list. People get carried away in satisfying their to-do list, while they forget about the real reason why they do it. It should be clear about the goals we intend to achieve.

  3. Andrey
    Andrey says:

    It’s true and I would especially stress on doing first the most important tasks and shortening to do lists to several the most important items, which I really cannot manage without planning (this often happens while men multitasking:)

  4. Alan
    Alan says:

    Great reminders. Having a to do list can sometimes make a difference. Goals are can be forgotten if people are not focused on the main purpose of their activities.

  5. pablo
    pablo says:

    Let’s all stop searching for the big answer and pay attention to the obvious things that are so obvious we don’t use them! Great stuff!

  6. Daniel Sitter
    Daniel Sitter says:

    A quick commentary on your statement here concerning goals Penelope: Bravo!

    Unfortunately, most people do not have written goals, and are therefore subject to the wind and waves and anything else that will move them, including the agendas of others. In the absence of goals, we simply float between items on a to-do list, perhaps not even our own.

    I fully agree with your statement “Having goals is more important than the content of the goals.”
    It’s far better to have a track to run on!

  7. Reel Logix
    Reel Logix says:

    After years of experience and many, many to-do lists, I, like many of us know that we never run out of things to do.

    We are built that way. I think.

    Some tools make it easier than others to manage the inevitable changes we know will come. What did Steinbeck say about the best laid plans?

    Love what you say about goals.


  8. Brady Bagwan
    Brady Bagwan says:

    Delegation is the most important tip. 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?

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