4 Keys to Lasting Productivity

You can do more every day without killing yourself.

Yes, I’ve said it.

You can be a person who accomplishes more each day without having to burn out.

Because if you overwork, you’re bound to exhaust your mind and body — meaning that you’re going to have to take a long break to get back up.

Your productivity momentum will be broken. And more work will pile up after that.

You wouldn’t want that. Nobody does.

As the saying goes, better safe than sorry. So, we’re going to get down to the simplest, most fool-proof steps to get more done every day — for a sustained period of time. This could mean weeks, months or even decades of increased productivity.

Just like how a small shift in the rudder can affect your charted course, one small tweak in the day will bring you to a more productive destination.

Let’s set sail, shall we?

Step 1: Tweak Your Environment

Self-discipline is like a muscle — the more you use it in a day, the less strength you have before recovery. And once you’ve exhausted your self-discipline, you can’t do anything for that day.

So working on external discipline (i.e. the environment) can make your activities a little easier to do. Leo Babauta and Charles Duhigg write about how your environment is crucial to your habit formation.

Suppose you find yourself extremely lethargic every day and you wanted to stay active. You then set yourself to run more often in the week. But the last time you ran was during the previous election — you know your inertia is sky-high and you won’t do anything about this.

One simple step you can do is to tweak your environment. Put your running shoes by your bedside before you sleep.

When you wake up, you know that’s the first thing you’re going to do. Even better, you’ve already woken up next to your running attire — dry-fit singlet, shorts, socks, shoes and a water bottle.

Voila! You’ve created powerful cues to remind you what to do.

Principle: Small but crucial changes create external triggers for taking action. Doing this lowers two things:

  • Your inertia for getting things done
  • Your need to exert your limited willpower

Step 2: Set Tiny Goals

Avoid setting just lofty goals. Like, I want to be a millionaire by 30, I’m going to be the best guitarist in the world, I shall beat Usain Bolt’s 100 meter record by the age of …

I’m going to stop you right there.

Big goals are good to have, to keep you in perspective. Most of us have these big goals to keep our hopes alive — that we are not mere insignificant apes on this planet. The real question is, can you act on that big goal? If not, what should you be doing to realize them?

Let’s say,for the sake of argument, that you want to be the best guitarist. Well, practice makes perfect. And practice means action, so that’s a good thing right? But how do you get about deciding how to practice? What makes a good goal?

If you want to realize your goal, it first has to be:

  • Measurable
  • Actionable
  • Specific

What do I mean?

Instead of saying “I want to practice guitar a lot,” make it measurable or quantifiable (i.e. throw a “realistic” number inside somewhere):

Practice guitar 6 hours a week for the whole of November.”

Sounds decent enough as a goal. But don’t get complacent yet. Now, we have to make it actionable (i.e. you can envision yourself actually doing this):

Practice guitar for two hours on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday for the whole of November.”

See, isn’t this better? Two hours may seem reasonable for one practice session. Lastly, you want to make it specific (i.e. you are as clear as you can be on what needs to be achieved or done. “Practice” is still vague):

Keep playing the cycle of fifths for two hours on every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday for the whole of November.”

Now that’s a goal. Of course, you probably need a method to ensure that you take action.

Principle: It’s not enough to want to do it. You’ve got to be able to do something about it.

Step 3: Find An Accountability Buddy

So you’ve heard of this man who hired a woman to slap him whenever he used Facebook.

Well, you don’t need to go to that extreme, nor do you need a physical slap in the face.

But you do need to get someone you can trust to make sure you don’t veer off track. Your accountability buddy can be your spouse, parent, close friend, personal assistant … As long as

both of you have agreed:

  • to be brutally honest with each other
  • on the consequences of your actions

No lies in the accountability zone. If you didn’t do what you were supposed to do, admit it, face the music and get a good whipping. That’s probably the fastest way we can grow if we’re resistant to action by default.

And the buddy system works particularly because we’re such good liars with ourselves. When you set a punishment system in place and get someone trustworthy to give you the reality check, you are less motivated to screw around all day.

Simple idea, and it happens to work.

Principle: When held responsible to someone else for whatever you do, you are more likely to stick to the commitment that you set in the first place.

Step 4: Work Smarter, Not Harder

Well, this is one of the times where less really is more. And it’s advice that isn’t repeated often enough. You’ve heard of interns who have died from overworking.

While it’s an extreme case (as with most newsworthy content), the point is your own health and well-being are not to be neglected. We aren’t robots, so why are we acting like one?

So, stay true to the human’s way of life.

  • Rest when you need to
  • Get a massage from a friend
  • Go grab a drink from your nearest Starbucks

Just take a chill pill before you get ill. And how often and how long should you take a break?

Let’s say you’re a person with a desk job. Say you’re a programmer who doesn’t know when to stop coding. The Pomodoro technique might be just what you’re looking for. Work for 25 minutes, rest for five, repeat until the fourth cycle and then take a 15 minute break.

We work best under short bursts of time. And working in short bursts may work across a variety of professions too. Give this technique a shot.

Principle: Work at your optimum, and recharge when you need to. Also, rest time is not time wasted.

What You Can Do Today

There you have it. A simple strategy to turn your productivity around in a sustainable, actionable manner.


No one is expecting you to implement all the changes at one go. Even Superman couldn’t do that.

For today, just write down:

  • One aspect (i.e. one of the categories above) AND
  • One particular action that you would like to take. Just one.

That’s it. No more for today. And it is as simple as writing this on a 3×5 cue card, or typing on your Sticky Notes:

Change My Environment: Get Lisa to be Accountability Buddy for six weeks.”

Pause here for 47.3 seconds. Take a moment to think about that one small thing you’d like to change. Oh, and WRITE IT DOWN.


You’ve just taken that first baby step to making your life a whole lot more fruitful and engaging. And it’s not as crazy as you once thought.

No big secret here. Once you’ve created a holistic, fool-proof system, it’s much harder to say no to getting things done.

Share your thoughts below, and do include the steps you’re taking to get more accomplished this week!

Karlton is the Made Man at wearable technology start-up T.Ware. When he isn’t trying to be the most awesome slacker in the office, he is busy writing, reading books on Stoicism and trying to learn from Marcus Aurelius. Subscribe and get involved with the latest developments on his awesome project Aira.


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