The only thing more valuable than your attention is the energy you deplete to direct it.
Thinking, stress, and making decisions burn a lot of energy. According to Stanford University researchers, professional chess competitors can burn up to “6,000 calories a day sitting in their chair while playing in a tournament, three times what an average person consumes in a day.”
Your brain uses energy to process thousands of important conscious and unconscious choices throughout your day. From the second you wake up, visual images flood your eyes and sound waves crash into your ears. Information travels through your brain at over 260 mph, igniting more than 100,000 chemical reactions per second across 86 billion cells.
To double your productivity, you must design habits, workflow, and systems to promote the efficient use of energy. Energy is upstream of time. Time management is important, but it’s not the root of the problem.
There are three main levers you can pull to increase your market value:
- Increase productivity
- Build rare and valuable skills
- Invest in relationships and broaden your professional network.
Boosting productivity delivers the quickest return on investment out of these three levers.
What if you could double your productivity? What impact would that make on your career advancement and compensation?
How much is your attention worth?
You have a finite amount of energy and time each day. Paying attention to one thing requires ignoring something else. Every word you read, email you write, and conversation you have eats more of your daily energy budget.
According to research published by RescueTime, the average American office worker:
- Spends less than three hours per day doing productive work;
- Checks email or instant messages every six minutes; and
- Spends 21% of working hours ingesting entertainment, news, and social media.
By my calculations, the cost of that kind of distraction equals at least $124 / day or $32,240 per year for the average U.S. worker.
Don’t multitask and context switch
Context switching can kill up to 80% of your productivity. In other words, multitasking can affect your productivity as much as drinking alcohol throughout the workday. If you’re like most people, you’re constantly jumping between tasks, email, instant messages, and meetings. According to research from Carnegie Mellon University, knowledge workers “average about three minutes on a task and two minutes using any electronic tool or paper document before switching.”
Context switching makes you dumber. Heavy multitasking:
- Knocks your IQ score down by as much as 15 points, three times more than smoking cannabis;
- Increases errors by as much as 50 percent; and
- Costs the global economy as much as $450 billion annually.
Build habits to increase productivity
Your brain is not stupid. It turns recurring behaviors into habits, allowing it to free up brainpower for more important tasks. Habits automate decisions to conserve energy, reduce stress, and provide the structure to function efficiently in everyday life. According to researchers from Duke University, up to 40% of our behaviors on any given day are powered by habits and routines.
Good habits help you become the person you want to be. Bad habits get in your way.
Kill bad habits first
Ending bad habits can deliver more productivity gains than creating good habits.
What are some unproductive behaviors you could abandon to improve your productivity?
Perhaps you could:
- Stop checking social media or news during the workday.
- Stop trying to multitask.
- Stop ad hoc inefficient communication.
Add friction to help you avoid bad habits. For example, remove temptation by deleting social media apps from your phone and schedule time to check social media using your computer. The extra effort and inconvenience of logging in using a mobile web browser can be a deterrent.
Conversely, reduce friction to encourage good habits. Take the first step in that direction by eliminating inefficient work habits. What decision can you make once to eliminate hundreds of future decisions? For example, could you allow people to book unblocked time on your calendar using a scheduling tool (e.g., Calendly, Google Calendar) instead of emailing back and forth to decide on a meeting time? Imagine the hundreds of scheduling decisions and emails you could eliminate.
Focus on value
Instead of focusing on hours worked, focus your attention on the value created per hour. Not all work has the same value. Laser focus on completing high-value tasks in less time. What you decide to work on is more important than how hard you work. Embrace this mindset and you’ll start to see every moment of distraction as a thief robbing you of potential income, energy, and time.
Don’t get jerked like a puppet. Prioritize your most important work and design your workday to avoid context switching.Create quarterly plans to identify strategic priorities and plan your week in advance to focus on important milestones. Don’t allow yourself to get sucked into spending hours responding to email and instant messages or working on lower-priority tasks.
Assign every hour a task
To design your workday, break your daily schedule up into specific blocks of time that are aligned with your energy level, work responsibilities, and goals. Scheduling tasks for specific time periods helps you focus on one task at a time and guard against distraction. When you fill your calendar with priority work tasks, it’s harder for people to steal your time.
For example, I schedule a recurring two-hour time block every morning when I have the most energy to focus on important work that requires deep concentration. And I schedule a recurring one-hour block after lunch to complete less cognitively demanding administrative tasks. Schedule all eight-plus work hours in your day, but don’t break the time into smaller than 20-minute increments.
Use time blocking and the following habits to supercharge your productivity. You will feel like you’re driving a Ferrari on a racetrack instead of a minivan stuck in traffic.
- Commit to focus exclusively on the scheduled task during each time block.
- Schedule times to check email and instant messages (e.g., 9 a.m., noon, 4 p.m.).
- Add a block for reactive tasks so you can deal with last-minute and more urgent requests.
- Set a timer for each time block to help you focus and manage your time.
- Update time blocks at the beginning of each day and allow for flexibility.
- Build in buffer time and schedule breaks in addition to lunch.
- Schedule your ending time. Know when you will stop work for the day.
I approach each time block like a sprinter running a race and put my full energy and focus into the scheduled task for that limited period of time. No going to the bathroom, checking email, or getting up to grab a cup of coffee.
Start with 20-minute time increments to train your focus. Add time gradually as your focus improves until you can sustain longer periods of intense concentration. Due to the overhead of context switching, it takes most people the first five to ten minutes to clear their heads and get into a flow state. Work gradually toward a goal of 60- to 90-minute blocks of focused time. My sweet spot is 60-minute blocks before I need a mental break.
Minimize email and instant messaging
Don’t allow email or instant messages to drive your workday. Opening your inbox is like pulling the handle on a Las Vegas slot machine. Hitting the jackpot is highly unlikely, but you are guaranteed to waste a lot of time. When you open your email or instant messenger, you no longer control what grabs your attention. Therefore, you want to limit your exposure.
But scheduling time to check email and instant messages is not enough. You want to reduce the number of messages you receive in the first place.
Create clear processes to minimize messages and improve communication with your team and customers. Inventory your email inbox and instant messages over the last 30 days. Examine the purpose of each message and identify recurring decisions. Look for ways to construct a process for each decision to prevent future messages. A little investment up front can create a workflow that avoids lots of back-and-forth chatter and distraction.
For each recurring decision, create a shared document (e.g., Google sheet) or add it to a task board (e.g., Trello, Asana, Flow) and establish a review schedule. Creating a predictable workflow allows everyone involved in the decision to see information, update statuses, schedule responsibilities, and add notes to identify issues or ask questions. You can use this method to review content and provide input on any type of collaborative project.
Another strategy to reduce messages is to set office hours at a designated time to make yourself available to talk with people. Sometimes a short conversation can save dozens of back-and-forth messages.
Don’t use your email inbox to manage tasks and obligations. Put them into a task manager or to-do list to reduce the time you spend in your inbox.
To dig deeper into all the ways you can kick your email habit, read Cal Newport’s book A World Without Email.
Have fewer—and more productive—meetings
Most meetings are an inefficient waste of time and resources. When I walk into a meeting (or join a Zoom call), the first thing that comes to mind is how much it costs to have all these people in one room. Long-form memos can replace many types of meetings. Getting multiple people together for a meeting should be reserved for times when discussion is needed on important decisions.
Don’t call a meeting to provide updates—use memos to communicate those. When a meeting is necessary, distribute long-form memos in advance to help the meeting be more productive and worthwhile. Communication based on long-form writing forces team members to exchange ideas based on complete thoughts and contemplation, whereas meetings encourage participants to react in the moment and shoot from the hip.
Communicating through comprehensive written memos also frees you from aligning schedules and allows people who could not be in the room to understand issues, assumptions, and decisions. I’m not suggesting you do away with meetings altogether because there can be value in getting people together to discuss ideas. However, meetings should be a last resort and not a first option.
Exchanging ideas in written memos before meetings can also allow your times together to be shorter and more effective. For example, Amazon does not allow PowerPoint presentations in meetings. Instead, the company requires a meeting memo—a short written document with background on the agenda items, assumptions, scenarios, and decisions to be made. The meeting memo loads information into people’s brains quickly and allows them to absorb information better because they are reading.
Offload information to your second brain
Storing information in your head burns energy and limits your capacity to process new information and remember things. So stop trying to remember everything. Instead, capture and preserve knowledge, notes, and ideas in a digital format.
Outsourcing your memory improves your thinking, reduces stress, and helps keep you organized. I completed a personal knowledge management training called Building A Second Brain that transformed how I capture, organize, and share information. Here’s the overview of the methodology taught in the course.
Boost energy and accelerate learning every day
Your habits compound to help or hurt you. Physical and mental fitness are tied together. You can get exponential return on learning, exercising, eating healthy, sleeping, and meditating by investing a small amount of time every day.
But beware: bad habits also compound. Drinking, smoking, eating junk food, and failing to exercise can have cascading negative effects on your health and productivity.
Not all habits are created equal.Focus on significant actions that move the needle. For example, you could habitually track multiple metrics related to your car, such as tire pressure, miles traveled since last oil change, or when to check and replace your air filter. These metrics might be very important to make sure your car is achieving optimal performance. But when you’re driving the car, the most important metric to track is how much gas is in the car’s tank. You need to make a habit of watching the fuel gauge to know how far you can drive without running out of gas.
In the same way, you need to focus on habits that fuel your body and brain. Cultivating the following habits has had the biggest impact on my energy, learning, and productivity.
Sleep. Maintain a consistent sleep schedule during the work week, waking up and going to sleep at the same time each day. Benefits: Improved health, attention, response time, creativity, and decision-making ability. Sleeping for fewer than seven hours a night impacts your brain function and immune system.
Morning routine. I do the same things in the same order every morning. Benefits: Fewer decisions, which saves time, conserves energy, and reinforces good habits.
Meditate. I meditate first thing every morning. If you’re new to meditation, start with five minutes and add time gradually. Over the course of one year I increased my time to 40 minutes. Benefits: Less emotional reactivity, reduced stress, improved focus.
Read. I dedicate a minimum of 30 minutes to reading books—not social media, news, or articles. Benefits: Injects my brain with new ideas and accelerates learning.
Write. Writing helps integrate the knowledge learned from reading. I invest at least 30 minutes writing every day on topics I want to learn more about. Benefits: Improves clarity of thought, internalizes learning, allows me to share and communicate ideas with others.
Exercise. I exercise for a minimum of 30 minutes every day. I run outside, go to the gym, or walk. Benefits: Increases energy, reduces stress, prevents weight gain, makes me stronger, and makes me feel better.
Track habits manually
Tracking measures progress and builds a positive feedback loop reinforcing your actions.
I used to always look for ways to automate tracking and reduce friction. But I discovered a counterintuitive insight through trial and error. Adding friction by manually updating the most important metrics as I complete them throughout my day works better than automated tracking.
I’ve tried using different tracking apps and metrics but have been surprised to find that tracking minutes in a simple Google sheet has yielded the best results. Opening the sheet several times a day to manually update metrics for each habit and seeing my progress creates a dopamine hit and positively reinforces my goals.
I track a limited number of important daily habits that yield the biggest impact on my learning, energy, and performance. You can see a sample of my tracking here.
Tune your day
Experiment with productivity methods and customize them for your situation. Productivity is not one size fits all. Tune your habits, workflow, and systems in the same way a musician tunes their instrument to hit the right pitch. Strike the right balance between flexibility and structure to conserve your energy and maximize your creativity and focus.
I don’t want to give you the impression that any of this is easy. Growth requires effort. But you don’t need to incorporate all these ideas at once. Start small and build momentum. Your effort will pay off. Work toward doubling your productivity to earn more money and gain time to pursue your interests and spend more time with friends and family.
Goals provide a desired destination and help you clarify why you want to be more productive in the first place. Habits, workflow, and systems provide the method of transport to get there.
To learn more, sign-up for the “High-Performance Playbook” email series (it’s free), where I share the best evidence-based strategies, tactics, and frameworks to advance your career and make more money.
 “The grandmaster diet: How to lose weight while barely moving,” Aishwarya Kumar, ESPN.com, April 2020, https://www.espn.com/espn/story/_/id/27593253/why-grandmasters-magnus-carlsen-fabiano-caruana-lose-weight-playing-chess/.
 “Exploring the human brain,” Anythink, December 2015, https://www.anythinklibraries.org/blog/exploring-human-brain#:~:text=With%20information%20traveling%20at%20260,complex%20entity%20known%20to%20man/.
 Assumptions: Salary per year = $50,000; $50,000 / 1,800 hours = $27.78 / hour; $27.78 / hour X 4.5 hours distracted = $124 / day
 “Context switching: Why jumping between tasks is killing your productivity (and what you can do about it),” Jory Mackay, RescueTimeI, February 2021, https://blog.rescuetime.com/context-switching/.
 “Work fragmentation as common practice: The paradox of IT support,” Gloria Mark, Human Computer Interaction Institute, Carnegie Mellon University, https://www.hcii.cmu.edu/news/event/2004/10/work-fragmentation-common-practice-paradox-it-support/.
 “Habits—A repeat performance,” David T. Neal, Wendy Wood, and Jeffrey M. Quinn, Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2006, https://web.archive.org/web/20110526144503/http:/dornsife.usc.edu/wendywood/research/documents/Neal.Wood.Quinn.2006.pdf/.