In a bid to get a jump on New Year’s Resolution season, I’m thrilled to share some powerful insights on how to work well, be productive, get your most important priorities accomplished, and be healthy and in control along the way.

I’ve long been a student of and protagonist in productivity, so this is a topic near and dear to my heart. These tips are largely the product of one of my closest friends, Etienne Boillot, who was responding to a recent comment made by someone very close to him, “I don’t know how to work.” So Etienne and I set about articulating the strategies we have both developed and tried to apply over many years of trying to work “better.” Here are the 12 tips, followed by a little elaboration on each:

  1. Avoid working “badly”
  2. Understand the task
  3. Break it down
  4. Concentrate
  5. Reward yourself
  6. Know your clock
  7. Stimulate smartly and drink a lot of water
  8. Take breaks and use your body
  9. Use visual tools Manage obstacles
  10. Review your work – fresh eyes and four eyes
  11. Sleep enough

Avoid Working “Badly”

There is no point in working hard and getting a bad result. And of course, there is no point in not working enough to get the result you want. So the first thing is to commit to developing good habits that will enable you to work well and be productive. I’m a massive believer in the power of habits and with focus and consistency you can become highly effective at working well.

Understand the Task

Spend three to five minutes just thinking about what is being asked of you. Try to figure out what will lead to a “good result” – quantity, quality, amazing insight, rote memorization, speed, or accuracy? Think of the task/assignment as a game: what does “winning the game” mean?

Break it Down

This is critical. Any task, assignment, project can be broken down into smaller bits. An essay has an introduction, development, and conclusion, and each of these can be broken down. A research project has the research part, the analysis part, the writing part, the reviewing and editing part, and the handing-in-on time part. Break it down into component parts that are comfortable for you, whatever that means. Maybe it’s a time element – “I will work for 30 minutes and then take a break,” or based on activity level, “I will read 10 pages and take a break,” or “I will write 2 paragraphs and take a break.”  This links up to your ability to concentrate. Tailor the tasks to the time you feel you can concentrate.              


Turn off all devices, music, and outside stimulation for the time of your sub-task, including social media, television, email, etc. This is absolutely critical. It’s hard at first to focus for more than 10 to 15 minutes, but over time your ability will increase so that you can actually focus for 30 minutes. If you don’t believe this, just Google the research. There is no research that shows that having outside stimulation improves results, and much that shows that outside stimulation decreases results. You may not realize this but simply staying hydrated by drinking water improves concentration. If you don’t believe that, just try it for a few days; what’s the downside?

Reward Yourself

Concentration is difficult and tiring, otherwise everyone would do it. So when you finish every sub-part, reward yourself. Best to define the rewards before you start —that way you won’t waste time thinking about how you should reward yourself . Tailor the rewards to the situation. Examples: 10 minutes of talking to friends; 7 minutes of social media; 10 minutes listening to music; go for a walk; stretch; eat a snack.

Know Your Clock

We all have biorhythms. As Daniel Pink wrote in his compelling book, When, there are early birds, night owls, and the majority who fall somewhere in between. Learn to recognize how you are wired and tailor your work, if possible, rather than trying to force it. Some people find that they are unable to focus after lunch, for example. If that is you, set that time for tasks that don’t require as much concentration. This might also be the exception to doing things while also listening to music or having other outside light stimuli, such as answering paying bills, doing laundry, or other physical tasks.

I know for me, my mind is sharpest an hour or two so after waking up and having done early morning exercise, also in the early evening. These are the times when I try to do my “thinking work.” Try not to fight your body (unless absolutely necessary, in which case see the next point, “Stimulate Smartly”). It’s generally a losing battle and incredibly inefficient, because your body will most likely win and all you have accomplished is to lose time which you could have spent taking a break.

Stimulate Smartly and Drink a Lot of Water

Coffee is great to combat the down-cycles if you need to. It’s also great if you need to focus for more time than you can do naturally. But, the more coffee you drink, the more you’ll need to get the same effect. So try minimize drinking coffee unless you really need it, e.g., with an imminent deadline, when you are running out of time and need to keep focused.  Also, learn when the impact on your sleep time of your coffee drinking is (for me, I have tried to stop driking coffee after 3 p.m. to not interfere with sound sleep).

Also, stay hydrated. Keep drinking water while you work because the mind and body need it more than you can imagine. This also makes you take a bathroom break, which makes you move around which in turn helps to keep your mind blood-rich. Here’s an easy test (parental alert for anyone reading this under the age of 8) – Make sure your pee is as close to clear as possible. Check it out every time you go and if it’s clear, give yourself a moment of satisfaction.

Take Breaks and Use Your Body

This is in addition to the small rewards and is incredibly important. A break is a real break at least 20 minutes and up to an hour. If you don’t have time for a real break, do “strategic recovery”, which can be as short as 20 seconds. Stand up, take three deep breaths, and shake out your arms and legs. A break refreshes the mind, increases creativity, increases energy and makes you happier. A break should be active, not passive (watching TV is a poor break but can be a reward). A break let’s your mind recharge and generally it will work on your task/problem in the background, without your realizing it, so that when you get back to your task, you are actually better prepared. 

A break is doing something else, something that you really enjoy. It seems obvious but a break is a break (if you have been sitting, move and stand). Move your body to stimulate your mind and get your blood circulating. Go for a walk, play the piano, exercise, paint, draw, bike, cook.

Use Visual Tools

Checklists are essential. Set one up before you start the project and check off the parts you have done. This will provide a sense achievement, a sense of pace, and also serve as a good reminder to what is missing. Keep a hardbound notebook for your daily checklists (I find this more valuable and rewarding than doing it on your calendar or phone notes app). As you check tasks off, list phone numbers, log your to dos, and make little margin notes, you effortlessly build a treasure trove of information. You can then go back to over time, which often spurs an idea, memory, or connection.

Cue cards can be useful to write down one idea per card. This can make it much easier to organize ideas, laying them out on a table and just moving them around until things start to make sense. This is a good way to organize your thoughts before you start writing an essay and something that is harder to do on a computer.

Other visual tools that can give you greater control over everything that is coming down the pike are paper calendars on your wall or desk but where you can see them. This is helpful to plan out your time into the future or to work backwards when confronting long lead-time projects.

Manage Obstacles

We always run into obstacles, even with the best planning. The key is to recognize the obstacle and figure out how to get around, go over, or blast through it. Perhaps you were trying to do the task at the wrong time of the day. Or maybe you need a break or to put it away for a few ideas. Or maybe you are out of ideas. If these are the case, it’s effective to turn to another project and try to make progress on that one. The feeling of momentum and accomplishment on one task will have a major spillover effect on another important priority. Since we can really only concentrate on one thing at a time, when you have 20 priorities, making substantive progress on just one of them will actually help you feel better about the other 19.

Just don’t sit there for too long. Get up, step away from the obstacle, do something else and then come back to it. Related to taking breaks and using your body, I find that going for a walk for even 15 minutes is usually the most useful way to overcome a barrier.

Review Your Work – Fresh Eyes and Four Eyes

After you have completed your work, take a break and then come back and reread or review it. It’s actually amazing what you will find when you distance yourself a bit and review it before you hit send or hand it in. Does the work accomplish the objective? Did you answer the key questions? Read it as if it was not your work but your friend’s. What would you say?

Four eyes: if you can, have a colleague or friend read or review what you have done. Yes, this takes time, but it is incredibly helpful and you can take a break or return the favor.

Sleep Enough

More has been written on this subject than most others in terms of the relation to productivity and sleep has become a multi-billion dollar industry. So I won’t belabor it here, but just to underscore its relation to productivity and working well, recently, a major study was done that showed the best determinant of success in college is the amount of sleep a student gets.  Arianna Huffington has built her company, Thrive Global, based on proper sleep and strategic recovery. So try to get your 7 or 8 hours a night, follow all the wisdom about not using your electronic devices within an hour of going to bed, making your sleeping quarters a dark, calm, and quiet sanctuary, try to go to sleep roughly the same time each day. Sleep is cumulative, so you can catch up on the weekend if you are burning the candle too brightly during the week.

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Good luck turning 2019 into the most productive year yet and that these help you work better and smarter and get more done against your most important priorities.

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