What drives personal productivity?  What thinking and behavior lead some people to “get the right things done”—an emerging definition of productivity—while millions of other well intentioned people exist in a blended state of chaos, overwhelm, stress, poor work/life balance and a perpetual feeling that it would all be better if only they could win the Powerball jackpot.

Consider that maybe what we want to generate and control is not time, that’s to finite.  What we likely want to generate and control is focus—that is, our concentration and attention on something (perhaps a particular task/activity).  The late Peter Drucker had an interesting observation, “Nothing is less effective than doing efficiently that which should not be done in the first place.”

Productive people have a thought process—an approach—that generates strong habits.  Research indicates that our habits (definition: acquired behavior patterns regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary) account for approximately 75% of our daily activities.  So then, reason suggests that our habits are either moving us toward control and relaxed focus—or repelling us from it toward the lottery ticket machine.

Many people tell me, “Danny, you don’t understand.  I have so much on my plate.” I nod, smile and respond, “I know, I can only imagine all that you need to accomplish and manage in your life.  I’ll tell you what, show me your plate and we’ll get started.”  You know what happens.

I’m taken on a tour of their “plate”—legal pads, documents with scribbled notes in the margin, hundreds and sometimes thousands of emails stagnating in their in-box. (Sometimes they state that they’ll read an email and then mark it unread so they can read it again.  Okay, truth be told, I practiced this crude art of email management for years). Often, the largest portions of their “plate” are the overwhelming number of “mental to-do’s” rattling around their head, producing huge amounts of internal distraction and stress.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that 80% of our medical expenditures are now stress related.

I ask if they’re trying to stay healthy and they respond yes.  “And what’s your approach to staying healthy?” I ask.  It always comes down to two principles:  nutrition and exercise.  Then I ask what’s their approach to personal productivity.  The typical responses are, “I just get it done.” “I prioritize.”  “I delegate.”  I actually had one guy yell out in a seminar that his approach to productivity was prayer.  He said, “I just pray everything works out and nothing falls between the cracks.”

The approach I’ve adopted has produced a life that flows easier and more quickly than with my prior approach, or actually lack thereof. My old approach was this; get into work early, eat lunch at my desk, stay late, then go home with a head full of stuff.  Get up the next day and do it over, always with an addicting preoccupation to thinking about Friday at 5 o’clock.

The approach has three phases:


Capture anything that has your attention into trusted collection points—the fewer the better.  Many people are using some type of list functionality on their smartphones.  The best practice here is to keep nothing in your head; it’s not designed for this.  And a tip is to turn off your email alerts.  Research suggests that every ten alerts we respond to every day may cost us about thirty minutes.

Processing & Organizing

Next comes the emptying part.  Empty?  Yes, empty—email in-box at zero or very close; desks & notepads clear; a head with nothing in it.  I know, you’re thinking that I’m suggesting we’ll all be more productive if we walk around all day with nothing in our head.  Exactly. Why? Because then we can focus.

Three key questions need to be answered.

  1.    Is it actionable?
  2.    Does is relate to a meaningful objective I will achieve?
  3.    What’s the strategic next action I need to take on this?

The next step is to put the action onto your calendar or task list (note; these should begin with a verb).  For Outlook users it’s a great practice to convert actionable emails to tasks or appointments, but remember to change the subject line so it’s actionable and clear.  This creates a system that a person trusts will guide them and generate massive amounts of focus.  Processing and organizing should be done daily.  Many people say it takes time and nothing gets done, and they’re correct, sort of.  If you’ve ever painted a room and first removed the lights switches and electrical outlet covers, removed the curtains, pulled the furniture to the middle of the room and covered it with drop cloths you know what I mean.  Why do this?  No painting gets done.  Yes, but when you do begin painting it goes easier and faster.  And the quality is usually better.  It’s the same with our to-do’s.  When we decide the action and place it into a system we trust, we move easier and faster.  Period.

Prioritizing & Planning 

People must focus from one place—their calendar.  We must no longer allow interruptions to drive our day.  Now I know that sometimes an interruption is exactly what demands our focus, but many times it’s not!  You see, if we’ve got what we want to accomplish on our calendar in a very strong “action” form, we’ve created an environment where whatever shows up unexpectedly now has to compete with what we committed to on our calendar.  We’ll still respond to some interruptions, but probably fewer.

A weekly review of our entire system of meaningful objectives, projects, calendar and actions is a must; our world is moving too fast.  A system un-reviewed will not support focus.

All this is very much common sense for sure, but many people have found its not common behavior for them.  They’re still using their in-box, piles and head full of stuff as their to-do list.

People and organizations are screaming for more focus, but for many a habitual approach to gaining and sustaining focus is not known—so not practiced.  Instead, they’re at the mercy of this fast-flowing world of information and communication—and the last thing that encourages is focus.