How To Be Productive

Written by: Reinder de Vries, July 27 2016, in Business, Guide

How to be productive

In our notification-rich world, distraction-free work becomes increasingly more important. It’s almost a shared obsession we all have: how can you do more, in less time?

When you’re building a side-hustle, or working on your next startup idea, while juggling a full-time job too, it’s important to become and stay productive. You want to get more out of your job, your professional carreer, and your business, without putting more in.

Recently a friend asked me: “How do you do it, Reinder? How do you stay productive with all the things you do?” He wasn’t wrong – building courses, blogging, doing outreach, building my own apps and those of clients, and still having the time to relax, that’s a full bunch of attention, effort and motivation, right there.

In this article, I want to tell you about the various principles, practices and cheats I use to stay productive. It’s not your average lifehack though, so get ready!

Why Do You Need To Be Productive?

It’s a fair question. Why do you need to be productive? Let’s start with the definition of productivity to answer that question.

Type in “productivity definition” in Google, and you get this as a result:

  • the effectiveness of productive effort, especially in industry, as measured in terms of the rate of output per unit of input.
  • the rate of production of new biomass by an individual, population, or community; the fertility or capacity of a given habitat or area.

Two slightly contradictory definitions, right? The first focuses on effectiveness, the second on efficiency. Effectiveness is the meaning of the result of work, whereas efficiency is the potential and the ability of work.

Efficiency is the rate at which you can climb a ladder. Climb fast and you’re efficient with resources, climb slow and you’re wasting potential. Effectiveness is whether the ladder is leaning against the right wall. Is it worthwhile to climb it in the first place? If not, which wall should you pick?

With productivity, we often use efficiency and effectiveness in the same sense, whereas effectiveness is the only first step. Efficiency comes later, but is equaly important (then, and only then).

I think for digital creative workers, like me and like you, productivity should be measured as “effectiveness” but is often mistaken for “efficiency.” As a digital worker you’ve connected ticking off tasks from your to-do list and associated that with feeling satisfied.

Productivity has become an addiction to happy feelings and as you’re working faster and faster to get more happy feelings quicker, you’ve lost sense of the purpose of your work: the goals you set out to do in the first place.

When you’re busy being busy, you can feel very productive, but you’re not going very far. The wheels of the car are spinning, the car engine is converting energy into presumed motion, but the car is completely still. It’s stuck in the dirt and you need to dig it out before the car can go forward.

Removing the dirt is key to becoming and staying productive. We’ll get to that later.

I try to use the word “goal” with restraint, because our goals and ambitions in life are often made overly important by culture and the media. Some of us set goals only to have goals, and not to achieve them. A better synonym would be “knowing what you want and doing everything in your power to get there.”

To be productive, the means and the end are equally important. It’s the relationship between the two that determines if you’re productive and it’s this balance that is the most important.

The Productivity Paradox

The Productivity Paradox says that we can achieve more by doing less. It’s like winning an entire footbal match by the one magic shot at the goal.

You reduce the amount of steps needed to complete a task or achieve a goal, so you can maximize the amount of goals you achieve in the limited time that’s given to you.

A great example of getting more output from less input is Tim Ferriss’ book The Four-Hour Workweek.

It’s title makes you think this is a book about working the least amount of time possible, when in fact it’s about using the least amount of time to have the highest amount of results. It’s about maximizing output by minimizing input: productivity!

In the book, the author uses a framework called DEAL. It stands for:

  • Definition
  • Elimination
  • Automation
  • Liberation (or Scale)

The last step is the most important. For 4HWW-workers it means spending less time in their jobs, or on their business, which leaves more time for other more pleasurable (or meaningful) pursuits.

The first step in the framework is simple: define the steps you’re taking to achieve a task or a goal. The second step is: eliminate all that’s not needed. We’ll get into the specifics further into this article.

The third step is interesting: automate as many of the steps as possible. As app makers, digital creative workers and startup people we’ll of course use technology to do that.

Liberating yourself from the whirlwind of daily life and work is what you want, so you can spend more time on what matters most to you.

Want to build your new side-hustle, but don’t have the time for it? Are you building the next app startup, while working a day-job at the nearest coffeeshop? Are you launching an app project from within your current job, but do you still need to juggle your day-to-day projects?

You definitely need to get more out of what you already got – make more of less.

Note: If you want to read this article as a step-by-step guide, now’s the time to define the steps you need to complete a certain task. Map out actions, put them in a flow-chart, plan it all out. It helps to know what you want. Definition means knowing what you want, and knowing how to get there.

Eliminate Distractions

Alright. I have to rip off the bandaid for a little bit here… How much time did you spend today on each of the following items?

  • Browsing Facebook, updating yourself on (supposedly) important status updates from friends, relatives and your favorite media outlet?
  • Responding to urgent, but unimportant, incoming messages from co-workers, clients or customers via email, Slack, chat and Skype?
  • Being present at a meeting that could have been compressed into 5 minutes of high-speed Skype/Hangouts/Facetime, if it weren’t for the fact that you all spent 15 minutes chatting about the weather, the elections, and this weird cat video, while waiting for Bob to join (who is always late).
  • Reading BuzzFeed doing “research” into the 5 habits that made these billionaires super successful, and reading up on this awesome lifehack you might need one day, and then smacking your lips over this super delicious totally healthy brownie cake recipe.
  • Checking your email. Again. And again. Checking Facebook. Again. Repolishing your LinkedIn page. Browsing Twitter. Checking Facebook. Again. And again…
  • Thinking about what happened during that wedding five years ago when your ex-girlfriend Jill came in and you were distracted so you made a weird face to John who was telling you a boring story but you felt bad for him and you stammered and John noticed it was because of Jill and he laughed super hard (too hard, awkward…) and you now still feel ashamed (but don’t remember exactly why).

We all do this and that’s okay.

What’s not okay, however, is that all these distractions keep you from the work you set out to do. You already know this, though.

So what’s not working here?

You know you need to do something different to get a different outcome, but you don’t. Why is that? Aren’t the incentives big enough? You know that you can achieve more if you abandon Facebook and put your phone to sleep, but you’re not changing despite that realization.

You even tried to do a “sabbatical”, in which you didn’t check on Facebook for a month. At first it was magical, not having to check in, and you felt good. After a week you accidentally checked in, and felt bad. Then you got back to the sabbatical again, and you mustered all self-control you have, which made you feel good again.

You managed to overcome your Facebook additiction for a month, ultimately, so you achieved your goal. But… that’s three months ago now, and you’re still on Facebook daily. Fuck! What’s happening?

The truth isn’t that you don’t have self-control. You do. It’s just that you’re not nice enough to yourself.

By creating all these rules for being productive, for being a digital monk, for being in control, you’ve created so much friction and resistance against it that it’s becoming an increasingly large problem in your mind.

This resistance takes energy, an energy that depletes over time, ultimately giving in to temptation and get addicted again. You end up exactly where you started and to make matters worse, you’ve reinforced failure and expelled a lot of energy.

Is all lost, then? No.

The Power Of Habit

Reader, meet the power of habit. Habits, you say? You’ve tried that, and it didn’t work.

Then it wasn’t a habit…

A few months back I tried an experiment. For a couple weeks I drastically reduced my sugar and carbohydrate intake, with a mashup of antiketogenic diet, The Bulletproof Diet and the low-carb high-fat diet. At the same time, I continued going to the gym to work out for 4 days a week (1.5 hours at a time).

In essence, I did the “don’t eat so much sweets, man” diet (movie rights for sale).

The results?

  • At first I was tired all the time. I was hungry. Moody. Craved sugar. It wasn’t funny.
  • After 3 days I had a glass of lemonade, the one in which you mix 1 unit of syrup with 9 units of water. It was sugar-free, but I was wary of the sweet taste that could trick my brain into thinking I was ingesting sugar. For some reason, it tasted sweeter than I could remember.
  • After a week I started to feel better again. My Bulletproof mashup diet involved lots of fats, including the high-energy medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) oil. It gave me energy and I noticed that when I started to feel exited, pumped up about something, I’d have these energy burst normally associated with sugar.
  • After two weeks the sugar cravings stopped. Even after working out, when my energy and mood is at a low, I didn’t feel the need to eat sweets or chocolate.

Addiction at its finest. Guess what? A few weeks later I’m back to my old sugary self, which is alright. I’m an education richer and these days I’m managing to moderate my sugar intake without compromising on wait, is that a chocolate bar over there?

My experience isn’t much different from what I explained in the previous paragraph, about eliminating Facebook distractions. After a lot of effort I had moved back to my original starting point.

The power of habit is different. In essence, you continue your low-information low-social-media diet indefinitely. The moment you get tempted to check your Facebook is the moment you get addicted again.

The key difference is the amount of effort it takes to resist the temptation. The longer you keep your habit, the easier it gets to resist. This is the power of habit.

Your willpower works like a bank account. Every time you need to resist a temptation, you withdraw from it. If the bank account reaches zero, you give in.

The power of habit increases the size of your bank account and the longer you keep the “willpower money” there, the more interest you get returned on it. You train your willpower muscle and spend less willpower reserve to resist an incoming temptation.

How can you do the same? Here are some techniques to try:

  • Install Newsfeed Eradicator for the Chrome web browser. It removes your newsfeed from Facebook (it’s not dangerous, you can revert in a second) and serves as a barrier for when you accidentally typed in in a thoughtless moment.
  • Remove all notifications, badges and buzzes from your phone and desktop. This will take a bit of effort and clicking around in Facebook, Twitter and your email program. I set my phone to Do Not Disturb mode when I’m working. If this is too hardcore for your taste, try turning your phone face-down when working. More effort to check means more barriers to check, and you can’t glance on it every few minutes.
  • Adjust your email program, like Gmail, so that it doesn’t open on your list of unread or not-responded-to-yet messages. This takes a bit of tech-savvy too, but it’s worth it. You’re essentially opening up your email on a blank page, meaning you can’t get sucked into responding to a message unintended.
  • Keep the phone out of your bedroom. The bedroom is for sleeping, not for playing Candy Crush and checking your email first thing in the morning.
  • Use a tool like Boomerang to train co-workers, clients and customers to not expect an email back the minute they send an email. You’ll figure out how it works.
  • Use a tool like Habitica to gamify your habits. It’ll help you overcome those first 30–60 days of habit building by keeping a streak, accountability, and rewards.

Think Like A Computer

As long as a self-thinking sentient artificial intelligence doesn’t exist yet, all computers will do for you is automation. And that’s incredibly valuable!

You can’t outsource “thinking” work to a computer, but you can automate a lot of other things. If you’re in the enviable position of managing people, or having an assistant, you can even automate by delegation.

Automating your work by means of technology is dangerous. Many of the technologies we use actually contribute to the whirlwind we experience in every day life.

This is why it’s so important to eliminate before you automate, otherwise you end up with overhead from automating tasks that weren’t meant to be done in the first place.

This is what you can do:

  • Take a pen and paper. Write down every project or job you’re involved with.
  • For every project, write down the tasks you need to perform on a regular basis. This can be a list of 3 items, or a list of 30 items.
  • For every item, think about a way to streamline the task. Can you remove anything? Can you consolidate more tasks into one? I’m sure you’ve gone over the efficiency of your work in your head, but did you actually write it all down? There’s an elegance to seeing those tasks in front of you, making connections you’ve never made. Write it down.
  • Research posssible technologies, tools and streamlined workflows you can use to substitute or replace a task, or use to make them easier and more effective.

“Automation” is sometimes the wrong word. With automating a task we associate “set and forget”. Truth is, you still need to do many of these tasks. What you’re really doing here is identifying the tasks and replacing them with more advanced, more streamlined alternatives.

Don’t be afraid to go low-tech. You don’t have to use any fancy to-do list apps, because they just add more clutter and more technology to your life. There’s nothing wrong with keeping a list in a notebook somewhere.

Automation can be found in collaboration too. It’s the famous concept of everyone in your team doing a small task alone, to do a big project together. Division of labor is automation.

The opposite is true too: batching. Why all do a small part, when one person can do the work in one go, faster? This is how I batch my work:

  • I sit down at noon every day and reply to all emails I got the last 24 hours as fast as I can. All in one go. During the day I check in 2–3 times for urgent messages, and leave the rest for the next day.
  • When I’m working on a contract app project, for a client, and the project is done and waiting for their feedback, I wait until they’ve finished giving all their points of feedback before I start working on the app again. I don’t like starting up the project for just a few minor bugs, but instead wait up until I have a big bunch I can work on for hours or days.
  • When writing blogs, outreach emails, pitches to podcasts, sales copy, I always try to do that in one big go instead of smaller and more frequent bits.

Think about it. If you were a sous chef, would you make every pastry one by one, or would you do all bottoms, all creams and all tops in batches?

The Meaning Of Deep Work

Recently I devoured the book Deep Work, written by Cal Newport. It’s an incredible read about the meaning and positive outcome of losing yourself completely in work.

I started out my professional career as a coder, a programmer. So to me the concept of “the zone” or “zoning out” is completely natural, as it is for many developers.

Deep work, or zoning out, is:

  • Losing yourself in one particular task or activity
  • Working undistracted for 3–5 hours at a time
  • Focus on a cognitively demanding task

The book gave me refreshing thoughts, especially since we all live in a time and age where undistracted work time is increasingly rare and many of the tasks we do get performed in 10–20 minute chuncks. Deep work is the antidote.

Highly effective work lends itself perfectly for a deep work session. Can you really spend 5 hours staring at tweets? No. Can you spend 5 hours writing a book chapter or programming a feature in your app? Yes.

By defining effective work as deep work, you’re already putting yourself ahead of everyone else. Cal Newport argues in the book, and I agree, that the ability to work deeply is becoming increasingly rare and valuable. The ability to work deeply is a valuable skill to develop, whether it’s for future employment or for your own business.

Deep work is also meaningful. How often do you spend the day wondering what you did, because everything you did accomplish was chopped up in 10-minute sound bites?

Work deeply and you’ll remember what you worked on. Deep work makes you tired (the good kind) and fulfilled, just like a craftsman or farmer is happy after a good day of honest hard work.

Take A Chill Pill

Taking drugs to be more productive at your job? It’s not such a weird thought, when you think about it.

Almost everyone of us is familiar with the most commonly ingested work drug ever: caffeine. Yeah, the chemical compound in the Cup of Joe, the black gold – coffee – and it’s responsible for increased focus, uplifted moods and the jitters all around the world.

Although coffee has health benefits, it’s also a bit of a compromise drug. Too much coffee gives you the jitters or a headache, a withdrawal effect, and people tend to get desensitized to the stimulation coffee gives you over time.

Do drugs with the same positive effects as coffee and caffeine, without the downsides, exist? Sure they do!

Welcome to the world of nootropics.

If you’ve heard of nootropics, you’ve probably heard about modafinil too. Such a drug isn’t what I mean when I talk about nootropics, because modafinil is a controlled substance and you don’t want to experiment with a drug that other people take for real issues such as narcolepsy and sleep apnea.

No, I mean nootropics as the smart drugs, the supplements, the ones that help you stay active, focused, energized and motivated.

Examples are:

You can try out any of these supplements for 1–2 weeks to see if they have a positive (or negative) effect on your mood, energy levels or ability to focus. Most supplements are synthesized, but their chemical compounds exist naturally in food and nature (just not in high quantities).

Most of the compounds above have been researched thoroughly, although they aren’t tested and approved by official organizations like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Always consult a doctor or specialist before making any dietary changes.

Having said that, Smart Caffeine is actually a medium-dose of caffeine and a high-dose of theine (found in tea). Theine is associated with the same effects as caffeine, but without the jitters.

My personal experience with CILTEP is that of increased focus and motivation, and the ability to work more zoomed in and zoned out for longer periods of time. Unlike sugar and caffeine, CILTEP doesn’t come with a crash afterwards.

Rhodiola rosea, or artic root, is a medicinal herb used in Russia and Scandinavia to help cope with cold climate. It’s also used in traditional Chinese medicine, and helps boost energy and reduce mental fatigue.

Research suggests that rhodiola may offer a practical, natural solution for overcoming many stress and stress-related issues.

Of course, none of this is tested but many reports from experience (including my own) say rhodiola helps reduce stress, stimulates the mind and is emotionally calming. It’s not a magic pill, but it’s no snake oil either.

Tips for experimentation? Always try one at a time, for a reasonable amount of time, and consult with an expert or a doctor. Always approach productivity, and associated enhancements, with a holistic view. It’s stupid to pop a pill and then browse Facebook for 5 hours, hoping that it’ll make you productive.

You Can’t Score Without Seeing

And that ties into the last part of this article on productivity. Just like you set a goal before you turn on productivity-mode, you need to backtrace and assess whether what you did actually worked.

There’s no better way to track results, and stay accountable, than using a scoreboard. In our home kitchen I have a few “No Zero Day” calendars (grid lines with dates, really) in which I mark my current objectives.

I cross off each day, at the end of the day, whether I did what I set out to do that day.

Possible score points can be:

  • Worked deeply today for 4 hours straight
  • Called 5 new prospective clients for your business
  • Wrote a blog
  • Took action towards a larger goal, i.e. a multi-day plan for getting more app downloads

The more actionable, the better. It’s true: you can’t score without seeing the goal. You need to define the goal, but you also need to measure whether you’re getting there or not. If not, you chance your approach.

Measuring your progress helps you to stay motivated, because you can see your progress towards achievement.

What now?

Well, to summarize:

  • You need to get productive to make the most of your day
  • Productivity is the art of elimination, less = more
  • Productivity means spending time on both effective and efficient work (in that order)
  • It helps to get productive by defining your work, eliminating what’s not needed, automating what’s left, and then liberating yourself to spend time on what actually matters
  • Building a habit gets you going, but the power of habit lies in forgetting you once had the habit (while you still have it, of course)
  • Eliminate distractions. Get off Facebook. Delete Game of Thrones. Become a recluse and yell at everyone who dares to distract you.
  • Work deeply in a meaningful way
  • Experiment with supplements to improve mood, focus, motivation and energy levels
  • Keep a scoreboard – you can’t achieve what you can’t see

One last piece of advice? Meditate with Headspace. It helps create a spacious, confident and calm mind.

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Written By: Reinder de Vries

Reinder de Vries is an indie app maker who teaches aspiring app developers and marketers how to build their own apps at He has developed 50+ apps and his code is used by millions of users all over the globe. When he’s not coding, he enjoys strong espresso and traveling.

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