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The Primary Principles of Productivity Everyone Should Know

Ever wonder how successful people manage to accomplish so much in so little time? They achieve high levels of performance by understanding the primary principles of productivity. The principles passed down to us from ancient times.
We like shortcuts. That's is probably one of the few constants about us as humans.  Few people say that they'd prefer the harder path to success. Even fewer people say it and actually go out of their way to find that harder path. 

There are, also, millions of people who like a good challenge, who revel in conquering an obstacle. But even those people often figure out and use shortcuts to achieving their goals.  This is what the discipline of productivity is all about 

A Brief History of Productivity


The end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century saw the biggest rise in productivity-related books, courses, and training seminars. With machines and computers showing us up on the efficiency front, we were looking for new wisdom on how to become more productive.  

To a future historian, looking at our age, it would seem that we were the fathers of productivity and its methods.  But the beginnings of the field of productivity can be traced back to ancient Roman times and if more papyri survived, probably ancient Egyptians could teach us a thing or two. 

In the Roman days, the masters of stoicism were imparting their wisdom through the written word.  Quotes from Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius can be found on the internet today extolling the virtues of becoming a productive member of society. 

It is essential for you to remember that the attention you give to any action should be in due proportion to its worth, for then you won't tire and give up, if you aren't busying yourself with lesser things beyond what should be allowed.

This quote from Marcus Aurelius speaks to the importance of defining what is important and doing that instead of wasting your time on things of little value.  In essence, the key to being productive was, is, and always will be the art of deciding what is important and doing that first.

Seneca was a predecessor of Marcus Aurelius and just as famous in the world of self-improvement.  One of his wise sayings touches on another aspect of productivity - managing time. 

We’re tight-fisted with property and money, yet think too little of wasting time, the one thing about which we should all be the toughest misers.

Insightful words by one of the most insightful thinkers of all time.  

In Seneca's view, time is the one thing that we always have a limited amount of and many of us give little thought to how to spend it.  According to the Roman writer, to be productive one should take into account the importance of the work and how best to manage one's time. 

These ideas were clearly understood by another famous proponent of productivity, Benjamin Franklin.  For him, managing time well and defining what was most important to get done were the keys to success.

The famous inventor and the father of modern America were known to begin each day with a list of things that he wanted to get done to answer the question  “What good shall I do this day?”. He was also the inventor of the first-ever to-do list that directed its user to decide on the value and the importance of the work before committing to it.

Benjamin Franklin's Todo List


Not only was this to-do list designed to help its user decide on what's the most important task for the day was, but it also had the time-blocking section. This was the section where one could block off different times of day to do the good work of the day.  Another insightful feature of Franklin's to-do list was an after-action report section - "What good have I done today?". It was to be used as a self-assessment tool.  By writing down what tasks were accomplished, an individual could learn what worked, what didn't and thus, improve. 

At some point productivity split into personal productivity and industrial (manufacturing) productivity.  Personal productivity, following Ben Franklin's methods, was promoted by such people as John Wanamaker in the early 1900s and Peter Drucker in the 1960s and 70s.  Industrial productivity, focusing primarily on efficiency, leaned heavily on the individual works of Fredrick Taylor and Lillian Gilbreth, culminating in the Lean Manufacturing method brought to us by Taiichi Ono and Shigeo Shingo.

But the modern history of productivity never really began until the early 1990s and has been going through a golden age through the beginning decades of the 21st century. 

The Golden Age of Productivity


The top 50 books on productivity have all been written in the last 30 years. (except Peter Drucker's masterpiece The Effective Executive).  Authors such as Stephen R. Covey, Brian Tracy, and Jim Rohn could be considered the founders of the modern productivity movement. 

Starting with David Allen's Getting Things Done, the 2000s and 2010s were especially productive on the productivity scene (pardon the pun).  The proliferation of productivity methods was so widespread it would require a couple of dozen books the explain them all.  Here's a small list of some of the methods popularized or invented by various productivity masters:

  • Getting Things Done
  • Scrum Method
  • The Kanban Method
  • Eat That Frog
  • OKRS
  • Must, Should, Want
  • The SMART Method
  • The Action Method
  • Time Blocking
  • The Pomodoro Technique
  • The 80/20 Principle
  • The Eisenhower Matrix
  • Agile Methodology
  • Deep Work

Most likely, there are at least a few dozen others, invented or reinvented by various authors striving to make a name for themselves in this crowded space. 

Productivity became such a hot topic during the last 20 years that Peter Drucker, one of the founders of the productivity movement in the 1960s, published another book titled "Managing Oneself", in 2008.

Which Method Is Supreme?

With the proliferation of different methods to make us all more productive, it has become almost impossible to decide which one to start with.   To make matters worse all of the above productivity shortcuts claim to offer the simplest and most effective method to become extremely productive. 

To choose correctly, it helps to know a little bit about each method. To truly be confident in one's choice, one would have to spend countless hours learning and trying each one first.  

But there is a better way of course. A shortcut. 


A Short - Key Principles of Productivity 


As you recall from the brief history of productivity, the ancient authors happen to come upon the two key aspects of productivity. Mainly, they noted the importance of managing time and deciding correctly on the most important task or prioritizing work.  

These are the key principles of productivity:

  1. Prioritization
  2. Time Management

In reviewing the various methods of productivity popular today (see above), it is easy to tease out these two principles. Each method is either based solely on one or implements both of these principles. Each implementation might differ, but the principles are the same. 

What's more important though is this. If you understand the principles, you can devise your own productivity method. A method that would fit your work, life, and personal preferences. 

For now, let's dive into the two principles separately and understand how current productivity methods apply these two principles. 

Prioritization

This is the first principle and the first step to becoming productive. It is about deciding what to work on first. What is your most important task? Which task will create the most value? What good shall you do today?. These are the questions that you should ask while prioritizing work.
 
The following productivity methods are geared toward helping you prioritize work. Let's take a look at a few of them here:

Eat That Frog
Developed by Brian Tracy, the primary idea behind this method is to figure out which tasks are the most difficult ones and do it first.

Must, Should, Want
This productivity system works exactly how it is named. You prioritize your tasks based on what you must do, what you should do, and what you want to do. 

Getting Things Done
Described by the author, David Allen, as "a process for bringing order and action to our typically chaotic and random individual worlds.",  this is a system for getting all things that you need to be done out of your head. This helps you organize your tasks after reflecting on them.

The SMART Method
This is a goal-setting system. But can definitely be used to manage day-to-day work. It stands for Specific, Measurable, Assignable, Realistic, and Timely. Because it breaks down your work into measurable actions, it can help you prioritize tasks more systematically.  SMART goals and tasks can be easily compared and prioritized based on specified measurements. 

The Eisenhower Matrix
The method said to be invented by General Eisenhower, is one of the most effective prioritization systems out there. It works on two axes: Importance and Urgency. The two axes create a matrix on which you can plot your tasks. 

A task that is Urgent and Important should be done now. The exact opposite task, a Not Urgent and Not Important, is pushed back into the do-later column. The Urgent but Not Important should be given to someone else to handle, if possible. And Important but not Urgent work is put off for later prioritization.

Eisenhower Matrix



While many methods are useful for prioritization, none come close to the simplicity, elegance, and effectiveness of the Eisenhower Matrix.

Other methods that can be fit into the prioritization category are OKRs, Scrum, Kanban, Agile, and 80/20 Principle.  But these are not in themselves prioritization only systems. They combine Prioritization and Time Management aspects. 

Time Management

On the time management side, three related techniques have been the most popular and the most useful. Since time is a constant there is only so much you can do to try and bend it to your will.  So the only method that works well is time blocking.

Time Blocking
Time blocking is the simple technique of cordoning off your time to work on a specific task.  There is a start time and an end time. During this walled of time, you can only do one thing. Everything else will have to wait.

There is really no other way to describe it and it's the only way we have to manage time. There are no other magic techniques or bullets.

How to do time blocking?

You can easily figure out how to block off your time if you have a calendar or just a piece of paper and a pen. There are a couple of frameworks out there that have worked well for others and might be of value to you.

Pomodoro Technique
This is a technique of time blocking that breaks time into chunks of 30 minutes: 25 minutes to do work followed by a 5-minute break.  Usually used with a timer, this technique is useful for tasks that don't require deep thought and that are likely to be finished in 25 minutes or less. 

It is not useful for periods of work where one can get into a sense of flow, the magical state where you're so focused on work that time just flies by. With Pomodoro's strict 25-minute work intervals, this can't be easily achieved. 

Deep Work
A method invented by Cal Newport, Deep Work, solves the problem of Pomodoro by dividing work into shallow work and deep work.  Shallow work is the type of work that's quick, requires little focus, can be started and stopped without major loss of focus. For example, email or meetings are types of shallow work.  Pomodoro technique can be perfect for shallow work. 

Deep work, on the other hand, is the type of work that requires you to get into a deep, focused state. A state where interruptions can be detrimental to your progress.  Reading research papers, writing an article, coding, or polishing a piece of furniture can all be described as deep work.  Deep work is all about eliminating interruptions.  

Cal New port argues that to become productive we should divide our time into deep and shallow work periods and time block them.  We think that the Deep Work method is the most effective time blocking system. 

Both Deep Work and Pomodoro Technique are forms of time blocking and are necessary to actually get the work done. 

Achieving High Productivity 


We often spend a considerable amount of energy rediscovering what someone else has already figured out.  For example, young software developers spend hundreds of hours rebuilding tools that have already been built because they think they can do it better. In some cases, they do build better tools. In most cases though, they discover that old ideas are the only ones that work, have been tried and tested, and should be used in most situations.  

So it seems for productivity, we continue to try and rediscover the ancient truths, time and time again. Maybe we do it because it feels good to "discover" something on your own. Maybe we do it because we truly think that there are better ways.  But in this field, like in many others, almost everything has been tried and tested. Best practices have been discovered, promoted, and used successfully. 

Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Benjamin Franklin, and countless other authors have surfaced the two key principles of productivity:

1. Prioritization
2. Time Management

The proliferation of many productivity techniques only serves to highlight the universality and effectiveness of these two principles. 

So how do you achieve high productivity? The answer to this question is simple and time tested: 

If you want to achieve high productivity prioritize your work and organize your time to ensure this work is done.  That's it. 

Note: Our suggestion to use Eisenhower Matrix and Deep Work to prioritize. your work and organize your time are based on years of trying and testing all other methods. We've found these two systems to work best together.  They are the simplest to implement and achieve the best results.