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Ultimate Guide 01:
Personal Productivity

Create More Value in Less Time

A scream pierced the walls of the MICHELIN-rated restaurant.

Then, silence as the entire dining room turned to stare. The recipient of all those eyeballs? A red-faced server, clenching a drenched tray by his side: me.

I had just accidentally spilled a full martini down the nape of a guest’s neck. That much she knew. What she didn’t know? A bleu cheese-stuffed olive was now prominently wedged behind the back zipper of her dress.

I’m telling you this story for a couple of reasons:

  1. I know what it’s like to have a job that's constantly belittling.
  2. That spill could have been prevented with a bit of productivity strategy.

As for point #2, let me explain.

The Great Martini Spill of 2017 occurred during my second-ever career serving shift. Surprisingly, the manager of an acclaimed French restaurant had hired me with zero serving experience. Even more surprisingly, he didn’t fire me after the spill. Instead, he pulled me aside, put his arm around my shoulder, and told me about “batching” (one of the ten productive strategies I will cover in this ultimate guide).

What I learned that day is that the best servers, when they’re swamped, batch similar activities together across their tables. So it’s: take all the orders of your tables at once, enter them into the point-of-sale system together, and so on.

Later, I came across a quote from renowned chef Sam Kass that encapsulates the idea perfectly:

When things get busy, instead of just plowing ahead, trying to work as fast as you can, and just going through all the tickets, he [the sous chef] always would tell me, “Step back and come up with a plan. Look at what dishes you have and figure out the most efficient way to cook them.” So, if you have five of one thing, don’t just cook them one at a time. Get them out, prep them together, and do them together.1

My approach before learning this strategy? The one that ultimately led to rushed service and the spill? I had been entirely reactive to the inbound requests of guests, processing each fully as they arrived.

While I never ended up being a fantastic waiter (it’s way harder than it looks), I dramatically increased my table capacity, improved my tips, and avoided a repeat seismic mishap.

To this day, that lesson about batching has stuck with me. (Among others, e.g., don’t try to hand the King of Jordan a steak knife without first making eye contact with his bodyguard…).

While I’m no longer a waiter, now I batch work by “making in the mornings and managing in the afternoons.” Or, I batch my weekly meal preparation every Sunday. It’s a brutally effective strategy for saving time and getting sh*t done.

Let’s get started with this multi-course productivity feast. Each section will bring you closer to creating more value in less time.

Bon appétit!

What Is Personal Productivity?

Personal productivity is defined as “value created divided by time invested.”2 Here’s the mathematical equation:

Personal Productivity = Value Created / Time Invested

Accordingly, people can raise their productivity by:

  1. Increasing their total value created
  2. Decreasing their total time invested
  3. Doing a combination of both 1 and 2

I’m not aware of anybody who calculates their productivity. Why, then, share this equation? Well, it’s essential to understand the variables—the levers—that you can pull to boost your productivity.

As mentioned, one productivity lever is increasing the value of things you create. This strategy involves choosing the right things to work on and doing the right things well (more on this to come).

The second variable to optimize is your time invested. This variable is about being more efficient in producing value. Here, a good question is: How can I work fewer hours and produce the same (or even greater) amounts of value?

What’s fascinating here is that “busy-ness”—investing a lot of time working on low-to-no-value tasks—is wildly unproductive. This scenario can lead to a zero productivity score, which is equivalent to doing nothing at all (aside from whatever intrinsic value you derive from the work). Harsh, but true.

So far, we’ve defined the productivity variables. Next, I’ll reveal five dimensions of productivity that you people manipulate the values.

 


 

Tempo Method for Productivity

In my research (and personal practice), I’ve identified five productivity dimensions and, in the process, come up with a useful acronym: TEMPO.

Let’s break it down:

PRODUCTIVITY CATEGORIES (TEMPO) DESCRIPTION VARIABLE OPTIMIZED
T – Time Management Allocating time to do the right things Time Invested
E – Energy Management Having the energy to do the right things Value Created
Time Invested
M – Mentality Being motivated to do the right things (and conquering procrastination) Value Created
Time Invested
P – Proficiency Doing the right things well Value Created
O – Organization Quickly finding the right things Time Invested

In the above chart, you may have noticed that each TEMPO category optimizes variable(s) in the productivity equation, thus saving time, creating value, or a combination of both.

Your productivity is a product of these five dimensions, not the sum. A low score in any of these categories will derail your productive output.

For example, maybe you timeboxed your morning calendar for deep work (time management) but only got three hours of sleep the night before because you binge-watched the third season of Succession (lack of energy management). While that’s undoubtedly entertaining, your lack of sleep is a recipe for low productivity.

Here’s an infographic of the TEMPO Method for your easy reference:

TEMPO Method of Productivity by Ben Meer

A productivity expert optimizes for each of the five TEMPO categories. In the words of John Oliver, “I could be wrong. I’m absolutely not. But I could be!”

Ready for the next course?

 


 

10 All-Time Greatest Principles of Productivity

First, it’s critical to understand the difference between principles and tactics. Principles are the underlying why of a given strategy, and tactics are the how. While tactics may change with evolving technology, principles are timeless.

By first mastering the principles of productivity, you’ll understand why a given tactic works. Plus, you’ll be ready to spot and take full advantage of new tactics as they arise.

We’ll get to the cutting-edge tactics. But first, here are 10 timeless principles of productivity, organized by their TEMPO dimension…

(T) Time Management

Strategy #1: Batching

As mentioned in the introduction, batching is a strategy of grouping like activities for optimal efficiency. Batching works because people can avoid the switching costs of time and attention that result when you alternate between non-like activities.

Jack Dorsey, the current CEO of Square and former CEO of Twitter and Square at the same time (!), takes advantage of batching by setting themed days.3 Dorsey shares:

On Monday, at both companies, I focus on management and running the company…Tuesday is focused on product. Wednesday is focused on marketing and communications and growth. Thursday is focused on developers and partnerships. Friday is focused on the company and the culture and recruiting. Saturday I take off, I hike. Sunday is reflection, feedback, strategy, and getting ready for the week.

Consider how you might group similar activities in your life. By avoiding switching costs, you’ll work smarter, not harder.

Strategy #2: Time Blocking

Piggybacking on batching, time blocking is the practice of “blocking off” your calendar to focus on predetermined activities. What’s most effective about time blocking is that you are proactive rather than reactive. Not only are you securing your time intentionally to focus on a select task(s), but you’re also blocking out distraction.

If you want to go deep into an activity, it may take a couple of hours to get in flow. I’ve found that blocking 1.5 to 3 hours on my calendar is the sweet spot for creative and productive breakthroughs.

Strategy #3: Parkinson’s Law

Parkinson’s Law states that “work expands to fill the time available for its completion.”4

In other words, the longer you have to complete a task, the more likely you are to either procrastinate or spend more time on the job than you otherwise should.

Does Parkinson’s Law make you think about school projects and how you always managed to get them done on time? Whether you tend to procrastinate or be a perfectionist, setting appropriate deadlines (applying Parkinson’s Law) will help you get things done.

Strategy #4: Pareto’s Principle (a.k.a. the 80/20 Rule)

Pareto’s Principle says that 20 percent of our actions lead to 80 percent of our results. You can take this a step further and ask: What’s the ONE thing I can do today that will make everything else easier or unnecessary?5

Imagine what your life might look like if you completed your single most important task of the day, every day. If there’s only ONE thing to take away from this guide, it’s this: Have a single “daily highlight”6 that you complete at all costs.

Even better, time-block your calendar (Principle #2) to complete your daily highlight. Simple yet advanced advice.

Strategy #5: Automating

Remember the productivity equation?

That’s right: Personal Productivity = Value Created / Time Invested.

Earlier, I mentioned what happens with “busy-ness”—investing a lot of time working on low-to-no-value tasks (inserting a zero for value created). Now, consider the other end of the spectrum.

How might you insert a near-zero for hours invested, all the while making something valuable? Because that, my friend, is where the magic happens. The answer? Automated systems.

Automating means outsourcing a task, either to technology or to another individual. Sure, you’ll need to invest time up front in setting up the system, but the productivity returns are exponential.

By way of example, let’s say you decide to automate your food sourcing/preparation. If cooking is not something you’re passionate about, you can hire a healthy meal delivery service. You’ll enjoy the benefits of strong nutrition while saving boatloads of time—newfound hours you can then invest in high-value activities.

(E) Energy Management

Strategy #6: Optimizing Your Energy

Optimizing your energy is, perhaps, the most underrated productivity principle of all.

Energy management is about “creating it, investing it, and not wasting it.”7

Know this: Combining energy and time management is a recipe for uncommon results. You’ll be working on high-value activities in your peak energy states. Simply, the higher your energy, the more runway you’ll have for simultaneous high-value work.

Dive deeper with my Ultimate Guide to Energy Management (it’s free).

Strategy #7: Environment Design

James Clear writes, “Environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behavior.”8 Here is something to keep in mind: You can design your environment to make it easier to perform your desired behavior.

Environment design begins with thinking about your environment in terms of relationships and interactions. What’s most interesting here is that person-to-environment interactions activate each of the five human senses (vision, sound, touch, taste, and smell).

And get this: people can design highly productive environments by optimizing each sensory category. Take scent, for example. You can use an aromatherapy diffuser with essential oils to trigger a particular mood. As I’m writing this, my Vitruvi Diffuser is releasing a mixture of peppermint and lemon (which are known to boost focus).9

Environment design is so practical (and fun!), I’ve created its own free Ultimate Guide.

(M) Mentality

Strategy #8: Purpose

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl writes about his ability to find purpose through unimaginable suffering in a Holocaust concentration camp. The one thing the Nazis couldn’t take from him? His attitude and ability to find purpose, like helping out his fellow prisoners.

No matter what you’re going through or the difficulty of the task ahead, start with purpose, and you’ll discover mighty reserves of fortitude. You’ll also find that procrastination doesn’t stand a chance when you have a compelling “why” for doing what you do.

My purpose is to teach people the power of life systems so they can experience greater health, wealth, and free time. Without the systems that transformed my own life, I still might be spilling martinis on innocent folk!

(P) Proficiency

Strategy #9: Meta-learning

Meta-learning means learning how to learn. Indeed, there are methods of learning that maximize your learning velocity and ability to retain information. These include techniques like speed reading, personal knowledge management, and behavior modeling (to name a few).

Recall the productivity equation in which value creation is a critical lever. Meta-learning is fundamental to productivity because knowledge leads to ability, which is necessary for creating value. Naturally, the more skilled you are at a given task, the more efficient you’ll be at creating value.

Time and time again, I struggle with using learning as an excuse to keep me from doing. Sure, there are worse ways to procrastinate, but doing is essential to realize our potential because the feedback from doing is often the best learning. Perhaps you, too, will find this mantra helpful: “learn, earn, return.”10

(O) Organization

Strategy #10: Systems

The best for last? Systems are the antidote to chaos. In short, systems are trusted processes that reliably create your desired outcome.

Take email management, for example. Do you have a trusted system for managing email that keeps you at inbox zero and ensures you never miss an important message? Other examples of productivity systems include personal knowledge management, task management, and checklists (to name a few).

As a famous quote (often erroneously attributed to Abraham Lincoln) tells us: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the ax.”

Know this: Building life systems is how the most productive people sharpen the ax. Subscribe to the System Sunday newsletter to receive a free life system insight every—you guessed it—Sunday.

Before moving on to the next section, here’s a quick recap of the ten strategies:

Top 10 Productivity Strategies Infographic

I hope you saved room for the main course because it’s a crowd favorite.

 


 

Tactics to be More Productive Today

First, we covered the productivity equation. Then, I revealed the five productivity dimensions (TEMPO) that let you manipulate the variables. After that, we discussed 10 timeless productivity strategies under those dimensions. And now, you’re ready to take advantage of some cutting-edge tactics.

I’ve put together a free tactical guide: 75 Smart Productivity Hacks to be 500% More Effective.

Here’s a sneak peek at one of the hacks:

HACK #23: AUGMENT “BLUE LIGHT” IN YOUR ENVIRONMENT TO BECOME MORE ALERT (LIFX SMART LIGHTS)

Research shows blue lights suppress melatonin, a chemical that makes us sleepy.11 I strategically use blue light throughout my home office in the morning and early afternoon to stay alert. I like LIFX smart lights because their bulbs are full-spectrum, offering brighter levels of daylight blue up to 9,000 Kelvin (K), whereas Philips Hue lights only go up to 6500K.

In the later afternoon, I wind down with warmer tones (2500-3500K) so that exposure to blue light doesn’t affect my sleep. Pair smart light bulbs with a voice assistant (Hack #13), and you’ll be a few words away from a high-voltage, energized day.

I considered charging a premium for these 75 hacks, but I’m new here, and I care way more about earning your trust. This means (for a limited time) you can get the complete list of 75 hacks for free:

75 SMART Productivity Hacks to be 500% More Effective

After reading countless productivity books, I’ve compiled the best hacks from experts. Download the free tactical guide.

And with that, a toast to some of the best productivity thinkers I know…

 


 

Quotes About Getting Sh*t Done

Here’s a selection of my 10 favorite productivity quotes:

Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it,
and I shall move the world.
ARCHIMEDES

“Civilization advances by extending the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them.”12 —Alfred North Whitehead

“What’s the one thing you can do, such that by doing it, everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”13 Gary Keller

“What you do is more important than how you do everything else, and doing something well does not make it important.”14 Tim Ferriss

“Being busy is a form of laziness—lazy thinking and indiscriminate action. Being busy is most often used as a guise for avoiding the few critically important but uncomfortable actions.”15 Tim Ferriss

“Essentialism: only once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, can you make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter.”16 —Greg McKeown

“How would your life change if each and every day you truly felt your 1,440 minutes?”17 —Kevin Kruse

“The future will be run by those who know how to go deep into their work. That’s when it will become a secret weapon.”18 Alan Stein Jr.

“Value your time at an hourly rate, and ruthlessly spend to save time at that rate. You will never be worth more than you think you’re worth.” 19
Naval Ravikant

“As long as you’re doing what you want, it’s not a waste of your time. But if you’re not spending your time doing what you want, and you’re not earning, and you’re not learning—what the heck are you doing?” 20
Naval Ravikant

 


 

About the Author

Ben Meer writes about technology, systems thinking, and conscious living. Tired of non-actionable life advice, Ben started System Sunday to teach people how to use tech-enabled and data-driven systems to accelerate personal growth.

75 PRODUCTIVITY HACKS

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