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Six Secrets That Will Improve Your Powers of Productivity

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Most people view productivity as the process of getting more things done. Those who are on the go from morning until night busying themselves with a seemingly endless stream of jobs are considered the paragons of productivity. This is one of the two common misconceptions about what it means to be productive.

But as bestselling author, Charles Duhigg, explains in his book, Smarter, Faster, Better, there’s more to productivity than meets the eye. ‘It means different things in different settings,’ he tells us. ‘One person might spend an hour exercising in the morning before dropping the kids at school and consider the day a success. Another might opt to use that time locked in her office, returning emails and calling a few clients, and feel equally accomplished.’

Irrespective of what it means to you, we all know some forms of productivity are more valuable than others. For example, completing tasks that progress an important project forward is more beneficial than repolishing your golf clubs. Yet, it could be argued that both activities fall under the banner of productivity. But I think you would agree that a person who prioritises the latter over the former is engaging in ‘productive procrastination.’

The other common productivity misunderstanding is that, like motivation, you have it if you don’t. Some people are seemingly overflowing with the stuff. They’re the successful types that have amassed an enviable list of accolades. Duhigg wondered the same thing when he reviewed the resume of Atul Gawande. A ‘paragon of success’, Gawande is world renown author (and surgeon), staff writer for a prestigious magazine, associate professor at Harvard, and advisor to the World Health Organisation.’

Duhigg wanted to know why some people possess greater powers of productivity than others. What he discovered after years of research and speaking with hundreds of productivity wizards was that it is a skill that can be mastered by anyone willing to learn.

This blog brings you eight exercises that can offer opportunities to flex your productivity muscles.

How to improve productivity #1: Motivation

Motivation is the name we give to that mysterious force that fuels us through the day. A fortunate few have full tanks while many of us are running on empty. (Some days, I’m chugging along on fumes!)

Are you the same? Do you struggle to maintain motivation?

If you answered ‘yes!’, it’s likely that you also struggle to stay productive. At the start of a project, you’re brimming with motivation . . . but it quickly fizzles out and you fail to finish. You’ve got multiple tasks on the go . . . yet they never get any nearer to completion.

These are common outcomes for those whose motivation waxes and wanes. Because it’s like an energy source, once your motivation runs down, output soon grinds to a halt.

Making choices can increase your motivation

Thankfully, topping up your motivational tank is relatively cheap. You just need to ‘find a choice.’ Finding and acting on choices increases our sense of autonomy and, more importantly, our internal locus of control.

Cultivating a strong internal locus of control, Duhigg reports, ‘has been linked with academic success, higher self-motivation and social maturity, lower incidences of stress and depression, and a longer life span,’ (Smarter, Faster, Better – p.23).

These positive outcomes, studies suggest, are ascribed to the ‘self-determination’ that a developed internal locus of control engenders. ‘Researchers have found that people with an internal locus of control tend to praise or blame themselves for success or failure, rather than assigning responsibility to things outside their influence,’ (p.23).

Tips to increase motivation

  • Rekindling our dwindling motivation is often just a matter of getting the ball rolling. Big jobs that require a lot of effort can be off-putting. Climbing a mountain in one stint is a daunting prospect, which is why few people try. But seasoned climbers know that breaking the mountain into smaller sections assuages self-doubt. You can apply this method to most big jobs. If you’ve got a 2000-word assignment to write, begin by formatting your subheadings. If you’ve got 50 emails to wade through in a week, aim for 10 each day. (The author of Secrets of Productive People calls this method ‘salami slicing’ – cutting tasks into wafer-thin segments.)

  • Finding and acting on choices puts you in control. When you’re in the driving seat, you have autonomy: you get to decide the direction of travel It’s this sense of autonomy, not the choice itself, that sparks motivation.

How to improve productivity #2: Teams

Team dynamics play a hugely important role in promoting productivity, The right team can move mountains and make amazing things happen.

While an effective team is easy to spot, the characteristics and qualities that contribute to their success are often elusive. The academic literature has struggled to pin down consistent qualities that run concurrently through strong teams. Do teams perform best when members share similar personality traits or meet up after hours? The answers are not clear-cut.

According to Duhigg, it took a dedicated group of data scientists from Google’s People Analytics department to discover the secret source that goes into making a successful team. As part of a massive in-house project to study ‘workers’ happiness and productivity,’ the data scientists eventually identified ‘group norms’ as the mainspring propelling productive teamwork.

‘Norms,’ Duhigg notes, ‘are the traditions, behavioural standards, and unwritten rules that govern how we function.’ When team members are guided by tacit norms, they seem to be more effective at coordinating their collective effort in the completion of projects.

But that begs the question: What norms enable teams to maintain productive output as they navigate the many challenges that litter the path to success? It took the inquisitive insights of a first-year PhD student to find the answer to that question.

Team norms

Amy Edmondson conducted a series of studies at her local hospitals to uncover the causes of medical mistakes. To cut a long story short, Edmondson ‘found that a handful of good norms seemed to be consistently associated with high productivity’ and, more crucially, fewer reports of medical malpractice. These norms include:

  • A culture of honest and open communication

  • Feeling safe to express vulnerabilities

  • The knowledge that mistakes are not met with punitive reprisals

  • ‘Psychological safety’ is a ‘‘shared belief,’ held by members of a team, that the group is a safe place to risk taking,’ (Smarter, Faster, Better – p.50).

  • Valuing and welcoming divergent views and opinions.

  • Being supported by your peers and manager.

You now hold the keys to unlocking the productive power of your team. All that’s left is to pluck up the courage to open the door.

Google’s five principles of successful teams

  1. Teams need to believe that their work is important.

  2. Teams need to feel that their work is personally meaningful.

  3. Teams need clear goals and defined roles.

  4. Team members need to know they can depend on one another.

  5. But, most importantly, teams need psychological safety.

Essential reading: How Google Works

How to improve productivity #3: Focus

Focus is a key factor in the fight for productivity. ‘Fight’ might sound like an odd choice of word in this context. But anyone who’s tried to sustain focused attention for any length of time knows how hard it is. It requires constant effort to stop the mind from straying (you’re probably thinking about other things right now (that’s if you’re still with me)). Thoughts perpetually pop into our heads bursting the fragile bubble of focus.

The inability to keep cognitively engaged impairs productivity. Vacillating between tasks and activities is a great way to get nothing done. And to make matters worse, there is an ever-increasing barrage of external distractors lining up to filch our attention. You’re trying to get started on that report but every time you start typing your phone buzzes or an email notification pings!.

When you find yourself stuck and in a state of exasperation, endless streams of distraction are but a click away: YouTube! Social media!! (And the dreaded) TikTok!!!


A popular method of unfettering focus is to automate as much of our life as possible. Email traffic can be redirected by implementing filters. Screentime alerts can warn you when you’ve exceeded a predetermined ‘acceptable’ period of procrastination. You can even farm out the writing of your report to artificial intelligence (and blogs, so I’ve been told).

Unsurprisingly, the rise in automation has reaped some serious rewards. ‘By one measure, there have been more gains in personal and professional productivity in the past fifty years than in the previous two centuries combined (Smarter, Faster, Better – p.76).

‘But,’ Duhigg goes on to warn, ‘as automation becomes more common, the risks that our attention spans will fail has risen.' It transpires that automation is a double-edged sword that cuts both ways. By reducing the number of things, we must attend to, our focus has atrophied. Thus, ‘in the age of automation, knowing how to manage your focus is more critical than ever before.’

However, that’s not to say that we ought to avoid automation. Not one bit! Taking that drastic step would attenuate our efficiency. Instead, we should use it wisely while being mindful not to allow the keen blade of our focus to become blunted. Duhigg offers some insightful advice on how to keep mentally sharp.

How to improve your focus

  1. Use automation sparingly and reserve it only for the most mundane tasks.

  2. Use mental models to help manage your attention. (A mental model is merely a means of creating a picture of your preconceived expectation of future events.)

  3. ‘If you want to make yourself more sensitive to the small details in your work, cultivate a habit of imagining, as specifically as possible, what you expect to see and do when you get to your desk,’ (Smarter, Faster, Better – p.92).

  4. Continually ask questions and seek out the answers.

  5. As far as it is possible, try to ensure that your workload is manageable. Like a SMART target (see How to improve productivity #4: Goal setting) your workload needs to hit that sweet spot between challenging and achievable.

How to improve productivity #4: Goal setting

Goals are like rocket fuel to productivity – they can send it blasting into the stratosphere. Researchers have shown that habitual goal-setters are not only more productive but enjoy a higher level of socio-economic success. An ingenious study conducted on professional typewriters demonstrates the transformative impact of goals.

These typewriters produced an average of 92 lines per hour (LPH). This might not sound like a great deal but in the world of typewriting 92 LPH puts them in the top 5% of performers. They were the equivalent of elite-level athletes. The research team questioned whether they’d ever tried to exceed their average score. Surprisingly, once typewriters hit this ceiling of productive output, they never tried to push beyond it: for over 15 years they'd been producing 92 LPH. It’s hard to imagine that any intervention – especially one as simple as goal setting – could make much of an impact on their numbers.

Researchers set the typewriters a short-term target of increasing their output by a few LPH – from 92 to 95. Critically, the goal was made explicit. In addition, typewriters were shown a simple method of tracking and monitoring their performance.

After two weeks the researchers returned. Astonishingly, every typewriter (over 40 were involved in the study) had improved their performance. What surprised the scientists more was the size of the increases. Without exception, they were boasting LPHs in the hundreds – 102, 106, and 112!

The researchers suspected that the typewriters ‘were just trying to impress them.’ So, they returned three months later unannounced. ‘They were [still] typing just as fast, some had gotten even faster,’ (Smarter, Faster, Better – p.118).

This example of how setting simple goals can promote productivity is not an isolated case. Studies conducted in athletics, business, and education reveal similar results.

Goals must be SMART

By way of caveat, researchers discovered that goals are only effective if they are SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timed. Vague or overly ambitious goals that are not supported on the SMART scaffolding can decrease performance and result in cognitive apathy.

Moreover, other studies have revealed that those who only set simple short-term goals can get caught in counterproductive loops. The need for cognitive closure causes a ‘person to have tunnel vision, to focus more on expending effort to get immediate results,’ (Smarter, Faster, Better – p.120). One way to circumvent this productivity trap is to have short- and long-term (or ‘stretch’) goals running concurrently. Here’s an example.

Short- and long-term goals

A stretch goal could be to run a marathon in six months. Over that duration, you could sprinkle several short-term goals (sometimes called milestones) – such as running 5 miles at the end of the first month, 10 miles at the end of the second, and so on. ‘The reason why we need both stretch goals and SMART goals is that audaciousness, on its own, can be terrifying,’ (Smarter, Faster, Better – p.127).

For many people the thought of running a marathon is fear-inducing – and thus off-putting. Yet, when that mammoth goal is broken into bite-sized bits, fear gives way to confidence. As Duhigg says, ‘Stretch goals, paired with SMART thinking, can help put the impossible within reach.'

Why not get started now? Using the flow chart below, set yourself a stretch goal and then segment it into SMART targets.

How to improve productivity flow chart.

How to improve productivity flow chart template.

How to improve productivity #5: Managing others

How we manage, organise, and work with others can dramatically impact productive output. Well-managed people can make or break a business. In the early 90s, this is what two business school professors at Stanford taught to their students.

The problem was, says Duhigg, when asked by their students to substantiate their claim, the professors ‘didn’t have much data to back them up,’ (Smarter, Faster, Better – p.145). Thus their theory was as stable as a house built on sand.

To strengthen the foundations, they embarked on a multi-year research project that sought to uncover why some companies fly and others flop. The professors focused on Silicone Vally start-ups.

After examining nearly two hundred firms, the professors captured a staggering wealth of data. Such that it took them years to make sense of it. Among the many valuable insights, an instructive pattern emerged. They found that the managing methods at each firm could be grouped into one of five distinct ‘cultures.’ They include 1) Star culture; 2) Engineer culture; 3) Bureaucratic culture; 4) Autocratic culture; and 5) Commitment culture. Duhigg describes them as follows.

Types of management cultures

The star culture is comprised of a crack team of educational elites. In addition to unlimited access to ‘fancy cafeterias’ and other ‘lavish perks,’ they enjoy unbridled autonomy over their work. This model of management, if it can be called such, relies on one or more stars conjuring up a groundbreaking gizmo that will catapult the company into the Fortune 500 list.

Though still boasting an above-average level of educational attainment, the engineer culture consists of a tight-knit team of tinkerers. Engineers are ‘young and hungry and might be the next generation of stars once they prove themselves, but right now, they’re focused on solving technical problems,’ (Smarter, Faster, Better – p.146-7).

The bureaucratic culture is characterised as a bloated management system where nothing gets done without at least five forms being filed first. Businesses based on the bureaucratic model are about as responsive as an oil tanker. Yes, they’re big brutes that chug along at a consistent rate. But they quickly run out of steam and are subsequently abandoned by their crew.

Autocratic cultures are ruled by a founder or CEO who mercilessly cracks the whip over his (or her) harried and highly stressed staff. Unsurprisingly, employee wellbeing is woeful which results in chronic turnover rates. In an interview, the Stanford professors reported that one autocratic chief executive said that he welcomes new employees by telling them ‘You work. You do what I say. You get paid.’

The commitment culture, in contrast, ‘is a throwback to an age when people happily worked for one company their entire life.’ The sentiment of a commitment culture CEO is expressed in the heartfelt comment ‘I want to build the kind of company where people only leave when they retire.’ Because the prevailing ethos is predicated on mutual respect and a desire to deliver high results, commitment cultures consistently come out on top.

Management cultures can make or break a company

Now, the important takeaway for us is that cultures correlate with corporate success. Imagine a continuum or spectrum of business success – measured by longevity and profitability. On the left-hand side are companies that quickly crash and burn. On the right-hand side, is the opposite: these are slow-growth companies that enjoy substantial revenue streams.

Reflecting on the five management cultures above, where on the continuum of success would you place each one?

I’m no mind reader, but I’m guessing that you consigned the autocratic and bureaucratic cultures to the far left (perhaps off the scale). You’d be right to do so as the data suggested that such companies fare poorly. It transpires that people do not perform well under the oppressive rule of a dictator or when bogged down with mounds of paperwork. Shocker!

But which culture was consistently associated with successful business outcomes? That’s right, those based on commitment. The reasons for this relationship are relatively straightforward.

People who are committed to their jobs tend to work harder: they are more productive. And because they are passionate about what they do, they also produce high-quality produce or provide high-quality services. The result: an increase in customer satisfaction.

But that leaves us asking: what are the characteristics of a commitment culture? Read on and find out.

How to create a commitment culture

  • Unlike stars, who are always vying to outshine each other, commitment employees do not feel compelled to compete. This enables them to direct more time and energy to their job.

  • A corollary of the low-competition working environment is a heightened sense of trust among staff. One of the chief factors that contribute to the success of commitment corporations, the study suggested, was trust.

  • Commitment managers, Duhigg revealed, placed a heavy emphasis on continued professional development. They also invested in training their staff.

  • Managers endeavoured to create an atmosphere of psychological safety so that people would feel comfortable.

  • And, while ‘commitment companies might no have lavish cafeterias,’ they did offer ‘generous maternity leaves, daycare programs, and work-from-home options.’ Basically, they prioritised things that make a qualitative difference to the welfare of their staff.

Essential reading: Leaders Eat Last

How to improve productivity #6: Decision making

Decision-making, Duhigg argues, is a critical life skill that everyone should strive to improve. The benefits of making better decisions include the ability to utilise your time more effectively, increased prospects of obtaining your goals, a sharper sense of future outcomes, and enhanced self-confidence.

We don’t need studies to explain this relationship – i.e., acting on a reasoned decision increases the probability of an expected outcome. What we want to know is how improving our capacity to formulate good decisions enhances productivity and, crucially, how do we improve this skill.

Surprisingly, Duhigg does not offer any answers to the first question. Throughout his chapter on decision-making, he goes into unnecessary detail on what makes a successful poker player. But when it comes to linking these abilities to productivity, Duhigg keeps his cards close to his chest.

How decision-making translates to improved productivity

From Duhigg’s discussion, it could be deduced that developing stronger decision-making skills enables us to make more accurate assumptions – predictions – on the outcomes of our choices. This, in turn, will inform us where to direct our productive energies.

Let’s say you have two choices – Choice A (to spend nine hours writing a blog post) and Choice B (to spend the same duration watching episodes of your favourite series). At this point, you are equally ignorant of their respective outcomes (other than that B will be a lot less stress-inducing than A).

Before deciding, you dedicate a bit of time to weighing up each choice. Perhaps you sketch out a process map or compile a list of pros and cons. After 10 minutes of head scratching, you arrive at a reasoned conclusion that choice A is marginally more beneficial than choice B. Now you feel confident to invest your energy into A.

In his book, Managing Oneself, P. F. Druker, the father of modern management theory, suggests a similar strategy to the one outlined above. However, Druker's method differs slightly as he recommends writing down the expected outcome of a choice before making it. 'Comparing your expectations with your results [...] indicates what not do [next time].'

How to improve your decision-making

But how do we improve our decision-making acumen? One way is by ‘training ourselves to think probabilistically,’ (Smarter, Faster, Better – p.203). The key to applying probabilistic thinking to the process of making decisions requires that we ‘force ourselves to envision various futures – to hold contradictory scenarios in our minds simultaneously – and then expose ourselves to a wide spectrum of successes and failures.'

But if that sounds too much like hard work, there are some simpler methods available. Apparently, studying statistics, playing poker (perhaps chess is an acceptable alternative?), and thinking about life’s potential pitfalls are ways to disperse the fog of your predictive foresight.

An even simpler strategy, says Duhigg, involves ‘looking at our past choices and asking ourselves: Why was I so certain that thing would turn out one way? Why was I wrong [or right]?’

Essential reading: Thinking, Fast and Slow

How to improve productivity key takeaways

Being productive is more than just making to-do lists and cramming a few extra jobs into each day.

At its essence, productivity is about investing our ‘energy, intellect, and time as we try to seize the most meaningful rewards with the least wasted effort.’

One method of advancing your productive PB is by ‘finding choices.’ Choices, remember, are like fuel to our motivational furnace. And motivation, in case you forgot, is the primary energy source for all productive pursuits.

Setting short- and long-term ‘SMART’ goals is a tried and tested tactic for unleashing latent productive potential. This effect was illustrated by the study that sought to raise the line per hour (LPH) of professional typewriters. When set modest targets and shown how to monitor performance, every typewriter improved their LPH score.

Team dynamic decides the fate of the outcome of shared endeavours. If the members of a team can get on board with a ‘shared norm,’ they’ll pull in the same direction. While this doesn’t guarantee success, it certainly makes for smoother sailing.

Moving from teams to management methodologies, ‘commitment cultures’ performed best. Commitment cultures are cultivated by managers who care about the welfare of their employees. This engenders trust and psychological safety which correlate with corporate success.

But all these strategies and interventions will count for little if we consistently make poor decisions. That’s why Duhigg places such a hefty price tag on decision-making. Sharpening this life skill can be as simple as playing poker or as complex as studying statistics. When these fail, reflect on your past and question why some decisions panned out that way.

To discover the final two secrets of productive people, get your copy of Smarter, Faster, Better >


About Dr. Laura Allen –

A Chartered Psychologist & Integrative Therapist, Dr. Allen specialises in a broad range of therapeutic methods. She is a published author of numerous research papers in the field of Positive Psychology. Dr. Allen works one-to-one with clients and supervises other practitioners. She is also a proud member of the British Psychological Society assessment team supporting psychologists in training.


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