18 Habits of Highly Productive People: What Efficient People Have in Common

the productivity habits of highly productive people
We’ve all known that person who always seems to be getting things done.

Whether a friend or a colleague, this is the person whose work is always done early. The one who somehow manages to finish hour-long tasks in 20 minutes.

The one people describe as a robot or machine, because surely no simple human could work as quickly as they do.

And yet these people exist, cranking away at maximum efficiency. What do these highly productive people have in common? How do they do it?

The habits of highly productive people

It’s tempting to look at highly productive people as machines (or wizards). But by studying how they work efficiently and overcome the challenges we all experience, it’s possible to boost your own productivity as well.

How do the most efficient people overcome challenges like:

  • Procrastinating on tasks—both small, nagging ones and large, challenging ones
  • Boring work that needs just to get done
  • Responding to email and other messages while working
  • Staying motivated and energized throughout the entire work day
  • Focusing and finishing the most important projects on their plates

As much as I would like to claim the status of “highly productive person,” the best I can do is say—I’m working on it. But from reading articles, checking out books, and asking questions of productive people, I’ve pulled together the best advice I could find on their productivity habits.

What follows are 18 of the most important habits of highly productive people. From ways to spend less time on emails to methods of staying focused, these productivity tips can help you maximize your efficiency—and get more done.

Increase productivity and become highly efficient with these habits:

  • Focus on most important tasks first
  • Cultivate deep work
  • Keep a distraction list to stay focused
  • Use the Eisenhower Matrix to identify long-term priorities
  • Use the 80/20 rule
  • Break tasks into smaller pieces
  • Take breaks
  • Make fewer decisions
  • Eliminate inefficient communication
  • Find repeatable shortcuts
  • Learn from successes as well as mistakes
  • Plan for when things go wrong
  • Work before you get motivated or inspired
  • Don’t multitask
  • Fill the tank—recharge
  • Sharpen the axe
  • Manage your energy (not just time)
  • Get better at saying “no”

1. Focus on most important tasks (MITs) first

You probably didn’t go to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—but an MIT can help you be more productive.

The theory behind Most Important Tasks is that any given to-do list has some tasks that are more important than others. If you focus on simply checking off to-do list items, you’ll end up with a mix of important and less important tasks completed.

It also exposes you to the potential for procrastination—it’s easy to spend the whole day checking off easy, less important to-dos instead of buckling down on the hard stuff.

Instead, spend a few minutes at the beginning of your day to choose 1–3 MITs—the things that, no matter what, you need to finish by the end of the day.

With a renewed focus on what’s important, it’s easier to make sure the important things get done.

Laura Earnest of Whole Life Productivity had this to say on the importance of prioritization as a productivity habit:

“Let me say that I distinguish between efficient and effective, but that both are needed for peak productivity. Efficient is doing things right and effective is doing the right things. So the most productive people work on the high value tasks, making sure that how they are doing those tasks is the best way.

I also believe that the most productive people are able to discern which are the high value tasks, and are able to either let the others go or delegate them. It’s not a crazy rush to get everything done, because they recognize that they can’t get everything done.”

2. Cultivate deep work

Some tasks are just hard. There’s no substitute for deep work.

Everybody has a few daily to-dos that could be almost be knocked out while sleeping. These are the tasks that you need podcasts to get through—if anything, they’re hard to get yourself to do because they’re not especially interesting.

At the same time, there are some tasks that are just difficult. You can’t multitask your way to finishing them. You need to devote serious time and mental effort to knocking them out of the park.

Cal Newport wrote about this type of work in his bestselling book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Newport argues that the skill of intense focus is increasingly rare—and that those who can master it are at an enormous advantage.

A few of Newport’s recommendations to cultivate deep work are:

  • Schedule deep work: Plan deep work into your schedule at a similar time every day, probably in the morning. Having a regular time to do deep work helps you make it a habit.
  • Get bored: It sounds counterintuitive to call being bored a productive habit, but being comfortable with boredom is important. Deep work isn’t always enjoyable, and boredom or frustration are what cause us to seek out distractions. Avoid using social media for entertainment as much as possible, and get more comfortable doing nothing.
  • Be harder to contact: Email and other distractions can be reduced by asking people who contact you to do more work up front. Ask people to research their questions before coming to you, and provide as much info as possible in their emails. Same goes for you—spending time on communications instead of dashing off a quick email can minimize back and forth.
  • Know your work habits: Do you work best in isolation? With periodic breaks? Are you working around a hectic schedule? You don’t need to overhaul your entire schedule—just set aside some time for deep work.

Highly productive people have mastered the skill of deep work.

3. Keep a distraction list to stay focused

With emails, social media, and a thousand little to-dos, it’s easy to get distracted when you’re trying to be productive.

Whether you’re trying to focus on deep work or just dealing with smaller tasks, distractions are the bane of productivity. It’s hard to maintain efficient work habits with distractions around.

One powerful method of reducing distractions is creating a “distraction list.”

productivity habits for distraction

Keep this list—whether it’s a Google Doc or a physical piece of paper—nearby while you’re working. Whenever a distracting thought pops up, write it down on the list and get back to work.

This technique, which is one of the secrets to the Pomodoro Technique, is powerful because a lot of the time your distractions legitimately require attention.

If I’m doing deep work and suddenly remember a bill that needs to be paid, or have an idea for a new blog post, those are thoughts that deserve attention.

They just don’t deserve it right now.

As thoughts arise during your work, jot them down. Once you reach a break in your work, you can come back and either tackle them or add them to your larger to-do list.

4. Use the Eisenhower Matrix to identify long-term priorities

One of the dangers of productivity is a focus on the short term. As management legend Peter Drucker once said “there is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” When you study productivity habits, it’s easy to fall into that trap.

On any given work day, it’s easy to get caught up in things that seem important right now.

The Eisenhower Matrix, used by Dwight Eisenhower to make decisions during his time as a general, was popularized by Stephen Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It helps you to quickly determine what you should work on and what you should ignore.

To create an Eisenhower Matrix, make a 2 x 2 square. On one axis, write “important” and “not important.” On the other, “urgent” and “not urgent.”
Eisenhower Matrix
Source: Develop Good Habits

Organizing your to-dos based on their importance and urgency can help you identify time sinks that aren’t worth it.

Are you spending most of your day doing things that are urgent but not important? Look for ways to delegate, automate, or eliminate.

Are you spending time on things that aren’t important or urgent? Ignore those things.

Are you making time to work on things that are important but not urgent? If you’re like most people, you could be spending more time in this quadrant. The Eisenhower Matrix makes it easier to see what matters and what doesn’t.

5. Use the 80/20 rule

Another way to prioritize tasks comes from the 80/20 principle.

Discovered by Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, the 80/20 rule (also called the Pareto Principle) states that in any pursuit 80 percent of the results will come from 20 percent of the efforts.

To maximize efficiency, highly productive people identify the most important 20 percent of their work. Then, they look at ways to cut down the other 80 percent of their schedule, to find more time for the things that make the biggest impact.

6. Break tasks into smaller pieces

Why do you procrastinate?

There are a variety of reasons that people procrastinate, but one of the most important is that the tasks on their to-do list just seem too daunting.

If you have to-do list items that are large in scope and not very specific, tackling those tasks becomes challenging. You look at the item and think “I don’t even know where to start.”

You can start by breaking large to-dos into smaller to-dos.

If I have a to-do list item labeled “write a blog post on productivity,” it’s easy to (ironically) put it off—because there are a few different places I could start.

What if I broke that larger task into smaller chunks? Instead of “write a blog about productivity,” I could have to-dos to:

  • Look up keywords related to productivity and good, efficient habits
  • Read the top 10 Google results on productivity
  • Brainstorm other methods to become more productive
  • Organize the ideas I’ve found or thought of into an outline
  • Jot down any specific thoughts on each tactic using bullet points
  • Go through my bullet points one at a time, to flesh them out into full sections

My larger to-do item has become six smaller to-dos. Sure that makes my to-do list longer, but it also helps me get things done faster—I don’t have to think about where to start.

Each item on my list is incredibly specific. All I have to do is tackle them in order. The result is the blog post you’re reading right now.

7. Take breaks

Nobody, not even highly productive people, can focus for eight hours straight. It simply isn’t possible. No matter how many efficient habits you build, you can’t maintain distraction-free focus for that long.

That’s why taking breaks is so important (and research shows it makes people more productive). Even breaks that are just a few minutes long can help you recharge and come up with new ideas.

When you take breaks, it’s important to make them structured and deliberate. It’s easy to justify distractions as “taking a break.” But if you don’t have that break time scheduled, it’s possible that you’re actually just getting distracted.

Methods like the Pomodoro Technique can help. In the Pomodoro Technique and similar methods, you work intensely for a specified period of time, followed by intentionally not working for a shorter period of time.

Scheduling breaks can keep you fresh and productive throughout an entire day.

8. Make fewer decisions (about things that aren’t important)

While he was President, Barack Obama once told Vanity Fair that he never makes a decision 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.”

Some decisions are important. Most aren’t. If you want to be more productive, consider outsourcing or eliminating everyday decisions.

Other highly productive people have made similar comments about their own efficient habits. Author and entrepreneur Ramit Sethi has what he calls “Ramit’s Book Buying Rule:”

“If you’re thinking about buying a book, just buy it. Don’t waste five seconds debating it. Even one idea makes it more than worth the price.”

If you’re trying to decide between two books to read, Sethi would say: “read them both.” There’s no point on wasting your decision-making energy on the unimportant.

9. Eliminate inefficient communication (spend less time on email)

It’s time we got to the elephant in the room: email.

Email is often considered the bane of productivity habits. Many people spend their work day with their email inbox clearly visible, responding to every notification as it comes in.

As I said in the deep work section, there’s a lot of value in reducing these kinds of distraction. One way to do that is simply by minimizing your inbox and checking at specific intervals.

Another is to become more efficient in your email communications to begin with.

Have you ever tried to schedule a meeting, then sent another five emails back and forth to set a specific time and place?

What if you could reduce the number of emails it takes to schedule simple meetings? Or make each email more precise, so that there’s less back and forth before your actually get to the real work?

Highly productive people reduce the number of emails they send by making each email clearer and more valuable. That might mean each email takes a few more minutes to write—but it also ultimately saves time.

If you need to schedule a meeting with an employee, don’t just sent them an email like this:

“Hi [employee name],

I wanted to meet so we could talk about [project]. When is a good time for you?

Best,
[your name]”

An email like that gets the job done, but it’s going to lead to a lot of additional scheduling emails.

Your actual meeting is also going to wind up being pretty inefficient, as you’ll need to go through the agenda in person—and the other person won’t have time to think through answers to your questions.

A better email might look like this.

“Hi [employee name],

I wanted to meet so we could talk about [project]. I specifically wanted to talk about:

[Project agenda topic 1]

[Project agenda topic 2]

[Project agenda topic 3]

I took a look at your calendar, and it seems like we’re both free on Tuesday at 10am or Wednesday at 1pm. Let me know what works best for you, and feel free to book my calendar.

Best,
[your name]”

This email is a little longer. It takes a little bit more thought to write. But it’s also much more efficient. It will take between 0 and 2 more emails to set up this meeting, and you’ll go in with a clear agenda and objectives.

You can use a third-party scheduler like Calendly to make this even easier. Just send someone your link and they can book a time that works for both of you.

From scheduling meetings to giving out assignments or asking questions, make your emails as precise as possible. This takes a little bit more work up front, but ultimately makes you more efficient and cuts down on unnecessary work.

10. Find repeatable shortcuts—automate tasks

If you find yourself doing the same things over and over, look for ways to do those things faster.

This can be as simple as learning common keyboard shortcuts, or involve automating entire sections of your business.
marketing automation example
What are some ways you can find shortcuts? Here are a few potential examples:

  • Put together standard operating procedures for common tasks, so you can quickly follow checklists instead of working from scratch
  • Delegate tasks to interns or other employees where appropriate
  • Learn simple keyboard shortcuts that come up often. I like using “command + shift + t” to open a recently closed tab, or “command + option + 2” to create a heading in Google docs.
  • Increase your typing speed—it seems obvious, but the difference between 60 and 90 words per minutes is huge. A game like Typeracer can help (warning: it’s addictive).
  • Use technology to take care of repetitive tasks

Repetitive tasks are great candidates for shortcuts, delegation, or automation. Knocking them off your schedule can save you lots of time and energy.

11. Learn from successes as well as mistakes

One of the challenges of highly productive people is ensuring that fast work is also good work.

When you’re working quickly, you open yourself up to making mistakes. Highly productive people tackle that risk by learning and improving at every possible moment—so that producing good work becomes intuitive.

Learning from mistakes is obvious (although of course valuable). When something goes wrong, analyzing the mistakes and looking for ways to prevent them is a massively valuable learning experience.

As important, and much less common, is learning from successes. When something goes well, why?

When you have a success, it can be tempting to pop the champagne and start celebrating. And don’t get me wrong—it’s good to celebrate your successes.

But successes deserve every bit as much scrutiny as failures.

Highly productive people make the most of successes by figuring out how to repeat them. What went well and why? What should you take from this experience and use again? Are there elements of a successful project that weren’t as effective and can be eliminated?

Asking these questions helps you go from one success to repeated successes. It also helps you understand your successes on a more intuitive level—which saves you time whenever you sit down to work on a new project.

12. Plan for when things go wrong

It happens to everyone. You have big plans for today—it’s going to be your most productive day yet—but then little fires start popping up and demanding your attention.

Whether your furnace breaks and you need to call a repairman, a last minute meeting pops up, or you forgot to schedule in time for lunch—sometimes things go wrong.

Highly productive people acknowledge the planning fallacy—the fact that everyone underestimates how long it will take to finish tasks.

Research on the planning fallacy shows that a lot of the reason for this misestimation is that we forget to take into account tasks or responsibilities that aren’t yet on our calendars.

Have you ever tried to schedule a meeting and thought “let’s do this next week, next week looks more open?” But then next week comes around and it’s just as busy as always.

Highly productive people are better at realizing that next week only seems open because you haven’t scheduled it yet. By planning for interruptions and creating contingency plans, highly productive people are able to adapt quickly when unplanned problems present themselves.

13. Work before you get motivated or inspired

A lot of people looking to get more productive habits talk about needing to get inspired or motivated. Highly productive people instead focus on getting started—whether they are motivated or not.

In her classic book Bird by Bird, author Anne Lamott gives this advice to aspiring writers: look through a one-inch picture frame.

one-inch picture frame
What does that mean?

It means that you don’t need to tackle everything at once. When you are having trouble getting motivated, it’s often because you are looking at the massive scope of a project.

That’s intimidating. It’s hard to get started when faced with the enormity of a task.

Lamott tells writers not to worry about inspiration or motivation. Just start writing in the smallest possible way. Even if you need to start by describing your own shoes, getting words—any words—on the page is the first step.

The same applies to your work—even if you’re not a writer.

If you feel overwhelmed or find yourself procrastinating, look through a one-inch picture frame. Start doing something—like breaking the task into smaller chunks—and you’ll find it easier to keep going.

Taking action is what leads to motivation, which in turn leads to more action. Highly productive people don’t wait for motivation—they start working and the motivation follows.

14. Don’t multitask

With so many distractions in our surroundings, it’s tempting to fall into the trap of multitasking.

Don’t.

The research on multitasking is clear: people are bad at it.

The reason is that “multitasking” is actually misnamed. When you try to multitask, you aren’t actually doing two things at once—you are rapidly switching your focus between two things.

Every time you switch, you have to re-focus on the new task. Because it takes a few minutes to get up to speed on a task, these “switching costs” make multitasking extremely inefficient.

Are there times where multitasking is ok? Probably.

If you’re cleaning your apartment while listening to an audiobook, you’re probably going to do just fine. The reason is that the two tasks—cleaning and listening—don’t use the same mental resources.

But if you’re writing an email while trying to follow the words in a podcast, both tasks are competing for your language resources—your work will slow down and quality will suffer.

Avoiding multitasking can be as simple as closing the tab with your email and muting Slack or text notifications. In most jobs, waiting an extra half hour to respond to an email won’t be the end of the world. But eliminating multitasking is one of the most productive habits you can develop.

15. Fill the tank—recharge

Productivity tactics, email templates, and prioritization are valuable methods of improving your productivity.

But they won’t help if you aren’t taking care of yourself.

Highly productive people spend time recharging. That means getting enough sleep every night, exercising, and eating healthy.

If you aren’t thinking straight or have trouble focusing, take a look at your personal habits. I personally know that seven or eight hours of sleep just isn’t enough for me—I really need closer to nine, and missing out on sleep affects my productivity for days.

Sleep. Exercise. Eat well. Taking care of your healthy habits is a crucial part of efficient work habits.

16. Sharpen the axe

There’s a famous quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln that goes:

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

Whether Lincoln actually said this or not is debated, but the lesson behind it is important. If you want to be productive, you need to make sure you stay sharp.

sharpen-the-axe
In a modern example, Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger attribute much of their success to reading.

By spending a lot of time reading, becoming more knowledgeable, and getting better at their trade, they were able to make faster and more accurate decisions.

As Munger once said:

“Neither Warren nor I is smart enough to make the decisions with no time to think. We make actual decisions very rapidly, but that’s because we’ve spent so much time preparing ourselves by quietly sitting and reading and thinking.”

Dedicate time to improving, and you’ll be able to respond more efficiently to a variety of situations.

17. Manage your energy (not just time)

Time management is a huge part of productivity. Many of the productivity habits on this list will help you manage your time more effectively.

But just as important—and often overlooked—is energy management.

productive habits mean energy management
If you are exhausted and can barely think, it doesn’t matter how many hours are left in the day. You won’t be able to use them productively.

This is the logic of tackling difficult tasks early in the day—you can get more done in less time before you get tired. Jason Fried, founder and CEO of Basecamp, says that:

“While people often say there’s not enough time, remember that you’ll always have less attention than time.”

Highly productive people know that it isn’t enough to have time to do things. Managing your energy—to ensure that you tackle the most intense tasks while you have the energy to handle them—is an important trick that can make you more productive.

18. Get better at saying “no”

It’s so tempting to say yes.

New projects and opportunities crop up all the time. It’s easy to get excited by the possibilities—and then wind up with too many commitments.

Saying no is hard. It means consciously setting things aside so that you have the time to work on your most important priorities. Expert Mark Shead from Productivity501 had this to say about the importance of saying no:

“People who are highly efficient are really good at NOT doing things. Having less to do means that the time you spend on important things is more focused and more productive. Too often people think they are becoming more productive by filling up their day with more and more low-value work, but this low-value work takes away energy and creativity that could go toward high-value work. 

The most productive and efficient people I know have figured out what they do that is really valuable and they put their effort into doing that to the best of their ability. Usually, this means that they stop doing some ‘good’ activities in order to focus on the things that are most important for them and for their goals.” 

Conclusion: Habits of highly productive people

Highly productive people can seem like magicians or robots. Most of the time, the most efficient people you meet have managed to find ways to overcome procrastination and other challenges.

To recap, here are the 18 work habits that highly productive people use to become more efficient:

  1. Focus on most important tasks (MITs) first
  2. Cultivate deep work
  3. Keep a distraction list
  4. Use the Eisenhower Matrix
  5. Use the 80/20 rule
  6. Break tasks into smaller pieces
  7. Take breaks
  8. Make fewer unimportant decisions
  9. Eliminate inefficient communication
  10. Find repeatable shortcuts
  11. Learn from successes as well as mistakes
  12. Plan for when things go wrong
  13. Work without getting motivated or inspired
  14. Don’t multitask
  15. Fill the tank and recharge
  16. Sharpen the axe and improve constantly
  17. Manage energy as well as time
  18. Get better at saying “no”

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