post written by: Marc Chernoff

12 Things Highly Productive People Do Differently

12 Things Highly Productive People Do Differently

“Absorb what is useful, reject what is useless,
add what is specifically your own.”
– Bruce Lee

Being highly productive is not an innate talent; it’s simply a matter of organizing your life so that you can efficiently get the right things done.

So, what behaviors define highly productive people?  What habits and strategies make them consistently more productive than others?  And what can you do to increase your own productivity?

Here are some ideas to get you started…

  1. Create and observe a TO-DON’T list. – A ‘TO-DON’T list’ is a list of things not to do.  It might seem amusing, but it’s an incredibly useful tool for keeping track of unproductive habits, like checking Facebook and Twitter, randomly browsing news websites, etc.  Create one and post it up in your workspace where you can see it.
  2. Organize your space and data. – Highly productive people have systems in place to help them find what they need when they need it – they can quickly locate the information required to support their activities.  When you’re disorganized, that extra time spent looking for a phone number, email address or a certain file forces you to drop your focus.  Once it’s gone, it takes a while to get it back – and that’s where the real time is wasted.  Keeping both your living and working spaces organized is crucial.  Read Getting Things Done.
  3. Ruthlessly eliminate distractions while you work. – Eliminating all distractions for a set time while you work is one of the most effective ways to get things done.  So, lock your door, put a sign up, turn off your phone, close your email application, disconnect your internet connection, etc.  You can’t remain in hiding forever, but you can be twice as productive while you are.  Do whatever it takes to create a quiet, distraction free environment where you can focus on your work.
  4. Set and pursue S.M.A.R.T. goals. – These goals must be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely.  Read more about this here.
  5. Break down goals into realistic, high impact tasks. – Take your primary goal and divide it into smaller and smaller chunks until you have a list of realistic tasks, each of which can be accomplished in a few hours or less.  Then work on the next unfinished, available task that will have the greatest impact at the current time.  For example, if you want to change careers, that goal may be driven by several smaller goals like going back to school, improving your networking skills, updating your resume or getting a new certification.  And each of these smaller goals is supported by even more granular sub-goals and associated daily tasks.  And it is these small daily tasks that, over time, drive larger achievement.
  6. Work when your mind is fresh, and put first things first. – Highly productive people recognize that not all hours are created equal, and they strategically account for this when planning their day.  For most of us, our minds operate at peak performance in the morning hours when we’re well rested.  So obviously it would be foolish to use this time for a trivial task like reading emails.  These peak performance hours should be 100% dedicated to working on the tasks that bring you closer to your goals.
  7. Focus on being productive, not being busy. – Don’t just get things done; get the right things done.  Results are always more important than the time it takes to achieve them.  Stop and ask yourself if what you’re working on is worth the effort.  Is it bringing you in the same direction as your goals?  Don’t get caught up in odd jobs, even those that seem urgent, unless they are also important.  Read The 4-Hour Workweek.
  8. Commit your undivided attention to one thing at a time.  – Stop multi-tasking, and start getting the important things done properly.  Single-tasking helps you focus more intently on one task so you can finish it properly, rather than having many tasks started and nothing finished.  Quickly switching from task to task makes the mind less efficient.  Studies have shown that changing tasks more than 10 times during an 8-hour segment of work drops a person’s IQ by an average of 10-15 points.
  9. Work in 90 minute intervals. – In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Tony Schwartz, author of the NY Times bestseller The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, makes the case for working in no more than 90 consecutive minutes before a short break.  Schwartz says, “There is a rhythm in our bodies that operates in 90-minute intervals.  That rhythm is the ultradian rhythm, which moves between high arousal and fatigue.  If you’re working over a period of 90 minutes, there are all kinds of indicators in your physiology of fatigue; so what your body is really saying to you is, ‘Give me a break!  Refuel me!’”
  10. Reply to emails, voicemails, and texts at a set times. – This directly ties into the ideas of single-tasking and distraction-avoidance.  Set specific time slots 2-3 times a day to deal with incoming communication (e.g. once at 8AM, once at 11AM, once at 3PM), and set a reasonable max duration for each time slot.  Unless an emergency arises, be militant about sticking to this practice.
  11. Invest a little time to save a lot of time. – How can you spend a little time right now in order to save a lot of time in the future?  Think about the tasks you perform over and over throughout a work week.  Is there a more efficient way?  Is there a shortcut you can learn?  Is there a way to automate or delegate it?  Perhaps you can complete a particular task in 20 minutes, and it would take two hours to put in place a more efficient method.  If that 20 minute task must be completed every day, and a two-hour fix would cut it to 5 minutes or less each time, it’s a fix well worth implementing.  A simple way of doing this is to use technology to automate tasks (email filters, automatic bill payments, etc.).  Also, teaching someone to help you and delegating work is another option.  Bottom line: The more you automate and delegate, the more you can get done with the same level of effort.
  12. Narrow the number of ventures you’re involved in. – In other words, say “no” when you should.  The commitment to be productive is not always the biggest challenge, narrowing the number of ventures to be productive in is.  Even when you have the knowledge and ability to access highly productive states, you get to a point where being simultaneously productive on too many fronts at once causes all activities to slow down, stand still, and sometimes even slide backwards.

Photo by: Horst Fuchs

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  • Very real and practical list. Thank you!

  • Great read! This will surely help me get things done. Thanks!

  • Brilliant advice! Thank you.

  • Excellent list! It’s amazing how much taking a break helps rather then when I used to try to power through it.

  • This is just awesome! Like a Bible for productivity :)

  • Clear, concise and do-able. Thank you for another great article.

  • Great article, extremely practical advice. I need to work on many of the suggestions you provided.

  • Great post. This year things will change in my life. I intend to use this post as a guide to help me make it happen.

  • I read your blog all the time. :) Well done! This article is a must read for anyone who wants to increase their productivity.

  • Great list! I feel pretty good I’m already doing most of these things. The one area where I tend to be a bit of a rebel is following the whole SMART goals system - if it takes me longer to organize a goal than to complete it, I don’t see the benefit. Still, I manage to make good progress. I suppose different systems work for different people.

  • Great advice! And thanks for pointing out some additional reference material to explore in more depth.

  • “Don’t just get things done; get the right things done.” is my favorite line from this post. Its so easy to spend all our time on busy work while the real work - the work that matters - doesn’t get the attention it deserves.

  • Great ideas! I will start being productive right now… logging off of the Web. :)

  • True. I love the ‘to don’t’ list - a small thing that can make a big difference.

  • Excellent once again. I even printed it!

    Many thanks Marc and Angel :)

  • Great read! For more tips on productivity in a corporate environment, you might want to check out my my recent blog post (linked above) - this is straight out of Good to Great by Jim Colins.

  • I sheepishly closed my email app after reading #10. Thanks for the reminder!

  • Dear Marc, great post and great ideas. Just want to let you, Angel and all your readers know that a “To-Don’t” tasks and lists will be available in the upcoming release of our InstaTodo app in the iPhone app store. There are so many ways a “To-Don’t” list could be so helpful. We also would provide a set of default “To-Don’t” list templates so InstaTodo users can generate these list with a single tap. Feel free to check it out.

  • Such practical advice that can be instantly implemented. Thank you.

  • @marquita herald: The SMART goals system is meant for larger, long-term goals. The primary benefit is tracking and measuring your progress to make sure you’re on course for achieving the right things in a set timeframe. For smaller tasks, I would agree that the SMART goals formula doesn’t directly apply… although many of the same principals do.

    @All: Thanks so much for the added insight and kind remarks. I’m glad many of you found a productivity tip or two here that helped you.

  • Can’t wait to get home and do the To-Don’t List … been distracted too many times by stupid tasks like checking my email/Twitter.

    I get really upset, when at the end of the day I realize that I’ve spent more time checking my email than actually working.

    And also thanks for the other awesome tips (90 minutes productivity every morning is a golden nugget).

  • Fantastic ideas.

    Being productive instead of busy is one that resonates quite deeply with me.

    Thanks for the awesome tips. As always.

  • Great article like always. Love your productivity tips. Thank you.

  • Wow! This is really helpful.


  • You always seem to know just what I need to read! I’ve been asking productive people lately to share their secrets, which hasn’t proven to be very productive for me because all the ones I’ve asked weren’t really sure what they’re doing differently that’s working for them! The list you have here is great though! I know I can improve on quite a few of these. Thanks so much for being a psychic for me on this one!

  • Such solid advice. I need to blow this up and stick it on my wall. Especially #7 and #10.

    I know it all theoretically, but I suck at putting it into practice (I’m currently writing an article for a client but just “popped” into FB, saw a friend post the link here and voila - I’m distracted. Gah!!!)

  • This was an amazing article! Thank you for sharing it. I really am interested in the 90 minute work cycles. I have found that time boxing has been effective for me in the past.



  • This website is amazing. I have spent the last few months reading it and working in developing new habits for my work and life. I haven’t achieved all my goals just yet, but for sure I got some things done, like not smoking (6 months now, yeah!), doing exercise (almost everyday), finishing some professional projects, facing new challenges… You advice is always very helpful.

    Great site and great article. Thanks a lot.

  • Marc,
    Very good article for clearing out the clutter and getting to it. Even works for those of us retired!

  • Another insightful read packed with simple wisdom. You’re awesome!

  • Great insights as usual. Love what you share with the us… Keep on going!

  • Wow, #1 and #12 alone were worth the read. Great article.

  • Another great post! I need a To Don’t! list badly. I’m going to type one up tonight. A minute here and there on Facebook and Twitter and email and other distractions adds up quickly.

    I’m also really interested in the time savers, but I wanted to comment before I clicked away. :)

  • Some of those ideas sound brilliant. I particularly like the to-don’t list.

    I must stop posting on forums when I should be working.

    I might give the 90 minute thing a try tomorrow, instead of just working through. Those things are closely related.

  • While searching for productivity information, I happened to see your blog. This article and blog are awesome! I really enjoy reading the content here. I will be back for your new updates.

  • Excellent points. I linked to your post in one of mine.

    I have one more to add: I recommend people create a “Two-Do” list. Hit two important tasks for the day and you’ll be more productive than flitting between dozens of less-critical things.

  • Great tips here. Just going through some of your other posts. I do like the idea of eliminating distractions. In this sense the old adage “less is more” comes to mind. I enjoyed this post!

  • Great tips Marc.

    My personal favorites are:

    7. Focus on being productive, not being busy.
    12. Narrow the number of ventures you’re involved in.

    I find productivity always comes down to our level of Focus and what we choose to focus on both in the present moment and long-term.

    And when it comes to narrowing the number of ventures or projects, let’s not forget about our personal projects as well. We sometimes forget about our personal commitments because we don’t view them as “projects” or “ventures”. A great tip I got from Scott Belsky’s “Making Ideas Happen” was treating everything you work on as a project.

    So if you’re planning a surprise birthday party or working on your personal fitness - that’s a project you need to consider as well because it still requires your Time, Energy & Focus.


  • Excellent article. Definitely things that I need to be doing!

  • This is great, thanks once more for this article. I’m working on my productivity, and this advice helps.

  • Great list! I would stress the need in #9 for following the 90 burst of attention with a physical break. The research on sitting for 4hrs+ is scary! We need to get up and move to bring our attention back and to take care of our health.
    Thanks for this.

  • Great tips! Thank you for sharing.

  • Thanks for the excellent post. In January this year I committed to getting my scheduling/To-Do list/planning in order in a serious way. I looked around and found a person that I knew had an insane schedule and then worked to find out how they managed it and achieved their results. In my case it was Tony Robbins. I know some people look at him as an infomercial guy or something, but his books and audio programs are amazing. I followed his Rapid Planning Method program and have been using it for about two months now with amazing results. A lot of the focus is on all the things you see above with a whole bunch of added stuff that he explains and walks you through over several days. Anyway, if you feel like you struggle with organizing a very busy schedule where you can’t seem to get ahead of the curve (even though you feel like you are working your a$$ off), check it out.

    Note: I am not affiliated with Tony in any way (as much as I wish I was)

  • Dear Marc
    I’ve read almost everything on your site and I continue to re-read it every day. Even in my depressed and down times, your words motivate me. So I have to say thank you for posting such beautiful, practical wisdom.

    Please keep the advice coming :) truly inspiring.

  • Catherine D'Aversa
    May 3rd, 2012 at 6:49 am

    I loved this article! My favourite is #11. Invest a little time to save a lot of time. It is so true and people hesitate to invest the time. Thanks!

  • Thanks for this article you’ve changed me 10% today. Just enough…

  • I really like the to DON’T LIST. It is something that most of us don’t do. Thanks for this wonderful post Marc!

  • Great advice. Thanks for sharing.

  • Your first point is one of the most insightful ideas I’ve heard in a while. Thank you.

  • Great tips.

    I specially like number 10 about replying to emails.

  • The not checking Facebook and Twitter is mighty hard… :(

  • What a brilliant site! I stumbled upon it yesterday and I’ve been feeling so better since then. I must share quotes and links with my folks… after all, happiness increases when shared :-)
    Thanks & keep it up!

  • Very helpful piece of advice, I will try to apply everything said in this article! Thanks very much to the writers. Now i’m gonna be awsome!

  • I might be late posting this but I just stumbled on this list today. I had never thought of a “to don’t” list and I consider myself an organized individual. I just wanted to say thank you for the idea. I am starting one on my computer and will keep adding to it. This is great advice and perhaps one of the best ideas I have read regarding habits of highly productive people in literally years. Thank you for posting this.

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