Imagine the most successful CEO you've ever heard of. You know the type: the Tim Cooks, Anne Wojcickis, and Elon Musks of the world. It may seem like they have more hours in the day than the rest of us — they'd have to, to have their fingers in that many pies without ever dropping a single ball. In reality, though, those CEOs have the same 24 hours we do — they likely just have a lot of great habits for productivity.
Here's the even better news: you can learn all those same great habits. Below are 24 habits for productivity, all backed by some of the best politicians, thinkers, makers, and entrepreneurs the world has ever seen. Forget productivity hacks — all you really need are the right habits. Read on to learn more.
24 habits for productivity (backed by experts!)
At the start of the day
To dive into all the best habits for productivity, let's imagine it's Monday morning at the start of a busy week. You've finished your morning routine and it's time to get to work. Here's how to start your day.
Eliminate unimportant decisions
First up is one of the most-touted habits of productive people: eliminating unimportant decisions.
President Barack Obama once told Vanity Fair that he stopped making decisions about what to wear.
"You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits", Obama said. "I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make."
If that tactic sounds familiar, it's because tons of other famous thinkers and entrepreneurs have practiced it: Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, to name a few others.
The idea is to eliminate the amount of time you'd typically spend on decisions that don't really matter, so you can instead spend that time on work that does matter. It doesn't just have to be about clothes. Try meal prepping to eliminate decisions about what to eat for lunch, or scheduling a personal training session at the same time every day so you don't have to try to fit the gym into your schedule.
Plan your day
Olympic gymnast Shannon Miller once said, "To this day, I keep a schedule that is almost minute by minute."
Miller may not have known the name of this technique — calendar blocking — or how popular it is in productivity circles. The idea is to plan out your entire day, every day, as a method of time management. It helps you keep track of how you're spending all your time, as well as ensuring you have enough time in the day for all your biggest priorities.
On that note, our next habit is all about prioritizing. It can help to adopt a framework that helps you identify your most important tasks each day.
Dwight Eisenhower developed one that he was famous for usin: the Eisenhower Matrix. On one axis, write "important" and "not important". On the other, write "urgent" and "not urgent".
Then, place tasks from your to-do list in the appropriate boxes. If a task is both urgent and important, do it now. If it's urgent but not important, delegate it to someone else. If it's important but not urgent, make a plan to tackle it later. And if it's not urgent or important, eliminate it from your list.
Delegate and ask for help
Whether or not you use the Eisenhower Matrix to do so, delegating is another important habit for productivity. The most productive people in the world know that they can't do it all — and no one makes it to the top alone. Never be afraid to ask for help, especially if there are too many tasks on your plate for you to finish them all.
"Eat the frog"
One of Mark Twain's famous quotes goes like this: "Eat a live frog, first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day."
We're certainly not saying anyone should actually eat a live frog. Ew. But there's wisdom in Twain's quip: it means you should do your biggest, grossest, or most dreaded task first. That way, with it out of the way, the rest of your to-do list will feel like a breeze.
Decide on fixed times for checking email (and achieving Inbox Zero every day)
Even though email is an essential part of modern communication, we here at Superhuman know just how much it can get in the way of maximizing your productivity. Who can get anything done when they're constantly fielding notifications and new messages?
That's why it's a great practice to designate one or two times each day for checking your email — and keeping it closed outside of those times. Using Superhuman can help you get through your inbox blazingly fast, so you achieve Inbox Zero each time you check your email.
Get started, even if you're not motivated or inspired
In her book Bird by Bird, famous author Anne Lamott told aspiring writers that they need to look through a one-inch picture frame.
What does that mean? It means that sometimes, looking at the big picture can get in our way. Procrastination is often the result of being overwhelmed by how much time there is in the day, or how much we have to get done.
Instead, Lamott says to just start writing, even if you aren't feeling motivated or inspired. Write in a journal, on a grocery list — anything, just to start putting pen to paper. The idea is that by just starting, even with something very small, we start to build the momentum we need to tackle the bigger picture or the long to-do list.
Throughout the day
Once you've gotten your day started on the right foot, use these habits to stay productive throughout the rest of the workday.
Author Margaret Atwood said, "I'm a person of whim, and easily distracted. I don't like multitasking. When I'm doing one thing, I like to do just that thing."
Atwood was touching on another habit that highly successful people tend to possess: they don't multitask. Through scheduling and prioritizing, you should be able to give 100% to whatever task you're working on at any given moment.
"I love the sensation of being out in the open air, far away from all the distractions of modern life. I will usually disappear for a couple of hours, and that time on my bike is quite sacred, as it's when I do all my serious thinking", said Great British Bake Off host Paul Hollywood.
That's another great habit: avoiding distractions. This can mean wearing headphones while you work to drown out noise, putting your phone away so you don't see incoming text messages and other distractions, using apps like Freedom to block social media during work hours — try to identify your biggest distractions, and then do what it takes to remove them.
Make a "distraction list"
Sometimes, distractions come in the form of work — something you can't exactly put away or block from your phone to avoid.
That's why another great tactic is to create a "distraction list" — a place where you can write down all the small, unrelated tasks, questions, and busy work that pop into your head while you're working on something else. That way, you can quickly clear these potential distractions from your mind, while ensuring that you'll remember to circle back to them later.
Think about the last time you tried to schedule a meeting via email. If you wrote something like, "We need to discuss the pilot project. When are you available?" then it probably took several more emails to find a time that worked for both parties and schedule the meeting.
Another great habit is to practice more efficient communication — by writing better, more actionable emails. So, a better email to send would be: "We need to meet to discuss the pilot project. Specifically, I'd like to talk to you about the deadline for permits and resources needed to file all the paperwork. I'm available Wednesday at 10 AM or noon. If one of those works for you, feel free to send me a calendar invite."
See the difference? Now, it will take just one more email (or potentially none) for that meeting to get scheduled.
This tip is especially helpful with asynchronous communication like email, which is a huge part of our work lives, especially now that so many people work remotely.
This tip can feel counterintuitive, especially for entrepreneurs who are used to using every productive minute of every day. But you have to take breaks.
Take it from Mayank Kachhwaha, Founder of IndiaLends: "Taking a break is an important stage in the ideation and innovation process. Consciously disconnecting and stepping back for some time can actually help in the synthesis of new thoughts and ideas, in addition to the obvious mental and physical benefits of taking a time-out."
Even a short break can help you recharge and refocus. Next time you feel stuck on a problem (or tired, stressed, or burned out), a 10-minute break away from work might be just what you need to get through.
Use productivity apps and tools
We live in the age of technology — productive people embrace it! There are so many great apps and tools meant to help increase our productivity; finding and using the ones that are right for you is a great habit.
"It locks you out of anything on your phone that might distract you throughout the day", she said. "I use that to help me resist the urge to go scroll on Instagram, for example. I've been using it for years."
Productivity tools don't always have to be apps. A good framework for staying productive and achieving your goals — the Getting Things Done framework, for example — is also a great habit to adopt.
Automate everything you can
Whenever you can take shortcuts to shave time off from repetitive or manual tasks, that opens up more of your schedule for important work. That's why it's a great habit to use tools like IfTTT and Zapier to automate workflows and tasks whenever it'll save you time to do so.
Don't be afraid to say no
Many of us struggle to say no — to extra projects, personal obligations, our coworkers, etc. And that may be killing your productivity.
Being able to say no (sometimes, when it's warranted) is actually a great habit. Award-winning entrepreneur and New York Times bestselling author Sophia Amoruso does so by practicing what she calls "healthy avoidance".
"Avoidance is portrayed as something that isn't a good trait — but I've learned that healthy avoidance can allow things to unfold, and help the important things rise to the top", she said. "You can also avoid things temporarily, to manage your own time."
Long-term habits for productivity
Aside from the habits you practice day-to-day, here are some longer term habits that can help take your productivity to the next level.
Keep your environment productive
Everyone has different needs when it comes to their work environment. Some people like a silent workspace, while others prefer white noise or music. Some people need a dedicated office, while others thrive when they work from a coffee shop, the kitchen table — even the couch.
A good habit for productivity is to know what kind of environment you need to do your best work — and then do your best to work in that sort of environment.
Manage your energy, not just your time
Basecamp CEO Jason Fried once said, "While people often say there's not enough time, remember that you'll always have less attention than time."
Fried was getting at another common habit for successful people: they don't just manage their time; they manage their energy. Time management can only go so far, if your energy is too depleted to take advantage of scheduled or dedicated work time.
A few ways to make sure you're managing your energy, and not just your time:
- Set boundaries and stick to them. It's OK to say no.
- Delegate tasks as needed, especially when it's not essential for you to complete them yourself.
- Make time to rest and recharge. No one can work around the clock without burning out.
Make goals (and take small steps toward them)
Productive people know that setting and achieving goals is a skill that takes practice to perfect. Another great habit to embrace is setting long-term goals, and then taking smaller, actionable steps toward achieving them.
"Sharpen the ax"
There's a famous quote that's often attributed to Abraham Lincoln. Allegedly, he said, "Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the ax."
Whether Lincoln actually said that is up for debate. But the sentiment of the quote is still very true — oftentimes, the most important part of a task or project is the preparation you do before you even start. When it comes to productivity, this can take a lot of different forms. But make it a habit to go into your work with a plan, and you'll likely find that it helps you be more productive.
Make deep work a habit
One of productivity expert Cal Newport's most famous concepts is "deep work", or the flow state you can reach when you get so into your work, making progress feels effortless. Deep work is a key to reaching peak productivity, so the most productive people make a habit of practicing deep work and setting aside uninterrupted time for it.
Follow the 80/20 rule
Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto popularized the Pareto principle, better known as the 80/20 rule, when he theorized that in any type of work, 80% of the results come from 20% of the effort.
That's why highly productive people try to identify the most important 20% of their work. If they can zero in on it, they can work to cut down on the things filling up the other 80% of their time, focusing their efforts where they'll have the most impact.
Take care of your health
Your health — physical, mental, and emotional — is the foundation of everything else you do. Taking care of yourself is the first building block of any habits for productivity.
This can mean doing your best to eat nutritious meals, making time to get ample sleep, engaging in self care activities, breaking bad habits (like smoking), and many other things — health is very personal and may look different for each of us.
See failures and setbacks as opportunities to learn and try again
Self-improvement writer Dale Carnegie had this to say about setbacks: "Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy."
Carnegie's advice is good for those seeking to be more productive. You will experience setbacks and failures. But it's important not to let them derail your progress. Similarly, don't let perfectionism keep you from taking steps toward a goal. Keep moving forward, even when you're unsure of the path. You'll learn from your mistakes as you go.
Practice good work-life balance to recharge
Finally, at the end of the day, we have one more habit for productivity: seek out work-life balance, and give yourself the time you need to recharge after work.
This is the basis of both your health and your energy. No one can work around the clock, and it's important to consider rest to be the important part of productivity that it is.
24 habits, infinite possibilities
These experts are proof that true productivity can be achieved through discipline, hard work, and good habits. These 24 habits for productivity are not exhaustive, but some of the best tips we've seen. Use them to lay a foundation, and never stop building more positive habits.