productivity tips

7 Unexpected Principles to Finding Your Most Productive Self

“Either you run the day or the day runs you” Jim Rohn

Have you ever tried a productivity system like creating massive to-do lists, not-to-do lists, GTD, the 4-Hour Workweek …only to find out this doesn’t quite work for you?

Worst of all, do you have a sense of overwhelm and anxiety when you think of your priorities for the day?

Sometimes we’d like the day to have 25 hours.

It’s not MORE hours.
It’ s being MORE disciplined with your time.

To prove the point to myself, I had the idea of putting myself in my favorite athlete’s shoes for a week and see if I’d have a more productive week.

1.   Why Think Like an Athlete?

Who epitomize achievement through discipline?
Who push body and mind, often since childhood, to reach excellence at the highest levels of human performance?
Who make sacrifices beyond imagination?
Athletes do.

I picked Clara Hughes, Olympic medalist speed skater as my model and started building a work routine just like hers:

Get up early, stretch, workout, eat, workout, recover, study, workout, nap, work…
Once I got used to her skates, I started feeling a change in my attitude towards work – I was getting more disciplined and focused.
The IOC (International Olympic Committee’s site) even offered me some helpful tips on time management:

« Time management skills are essential skills for effective elite athletes.
Athletes who master these techniques routinely are the highest achievers, even those under intense pressure, in all walks of life, from sport to business.

Firstly, it is important to identify and concentrate on the things that matter most. This ensures that you achieve the greatest benefit possible with the limited amount of time available to you. »

Here’s how these tips apply to your daily work:
2.   Find your Big Rocks

You probably don’t have time to do everything that’s on your to-do list.
So how do you choose?
There’s a simple rule but you might not like it:
You say NO to all the things that will not have a direct impact on your business.

Clara Hughes acknowledges: “What’s most difficult for me is saying no.  I often feel that I’m letting people down.  I’ve had to learn how to recognize my limits and respect these limits”

3. Keep Track of your time

· For a week, try writing down each activity you work on.
I know it sounds tedious but it’s a fast and easy way to find out whether you’re spending time on your Small Rocks or your Big Rocks.  All you need is a pad of paper to jot down the time you start an activity and the time you finish it.

·  Decide on what you want to do with the small stuff: eliminate, delay, replace.

·  Procrastinating?  In his book, Art of Procrastination, John Perry, a philosopher at Stanford University talks about “structured procrastination”. It makes sense to follow a classic advice: Just get started.  To do so: Chunk down your projects to chewable bites.

·  Tired? Start observing your work patterns.  Are you a morning person? A night owl? Athletes schedule downtime and restorative breaks after each intensive practice.

If you’d like to find out how efficiently you are managing your energy, take this free audit.  Author Tony Schwartz founded Renewal to help businesses like Google and Coca-Coal renew their energy to be more productive.

Working in 90-minute intervals turns out to be a prescription for maximizing productivity.

· If you’re still in a rut why not try an egg timer to pace you and get you started?

Turn the dial and listen to the minutes ticking away as a mantra.
When you do this rotational movement, you send a signal to your brain: JUST DO IT!
You are now designing your very own personal productivity routine that fits your unique needs.  But you still need to tweak it a little more.

4. Set yourself free and automate your process.

Who wants to work like an automat?
We tend to associate automation with boredom and lack of creativity.
But automating your work routine is different.
It allows you to dramatically reduce time spent on making decisions that drain your brain.  Automation takes care of ongoing questions about when to look up your emails, when to answer the phone, how long to surf the Internet.
Those synaptic pathways in your brain are going to get worn in because of repetition.
You create a habit of working on your Big Rocks.
By now, do you need to relax?
5. Relax to be more productive

·      Stop every 60-90 minutes
·      Breathe.

·      Move.
·      Walk your dog.

·      Try Downward  Facing Dog yoga pose for better focus.

That’ll get your creative juices running again.
Even better, this is where cross-pollination miracles happen.
And if you’re taking a break, why not fuel your brain too?

6. Eat and Drink
You don’t need 12,000 calories per day like Michael Phelps but make room for a balanced diet.  Drink – your brain needs it.

It’s so obvious we tend to ignore the advice.
7. Waste Your Time – but Waste it With Pleasure

Hey. We’re humans. Doing nothing is important too.
For ice dancing skater Marie-France Dubreuil, “the biggest obstacle to finding balance is my obsession with my work, I would continue thinking about training at the end of day. I had to learn to stay present in the moment.”

So you’re saying this is too simple?
Well, that’s why it’s so easy to dismiss.

You see you don’t have to be an athlete to apply these principles.
All you need is to approach time with an open-mind and some imagination.
One system does not fit all.
Play around with your new work routine until it’s a second skin.
The ultimate reward is getting the results you’ve been chasing all along.
And keeping your passion alive!

Laure Cohen coaches business people on ways to sharpen their business acumen and hone their social skills.  Find out more on how to stand out from the crowd in record time in her blog  Tweet her @laurecoh.

  • Finding your big rocks is key. Getting caught up in all the small things is an easy way to waste your day. It may feel like you’re busy, but by the end you’ve accomplished nothing. And you know it.

    Identifying those important tasks is vital to becoming more productive. Many of us need to stop majoring in the minors and just get to work on the stuff that matters.


    • Laureco

      I agree,Trevor, finding those big rocks is at the core of finding quality time for work and for ourselves.  The key becomes HOW right? Thanks for your insight!

      • Sorry, Trevor, my avatar… was not quite working.  Now you know who’s thanking you for your comment!

  • I think #5 and #7 are the most important points on this list if one has already learned the other points on the list.  

    • Hi Dan! Those are my favorites too.  But to get there, #3 Tracking my time, has helped me enormously.  It sounds all so simple but it’s not right? Thanks for dropping by.

  • Just found the perfect illustration on Paulo Cuelho’s site: The Time Is Now

  • Mary Slagel@Shapedaily

    Thank you for the great article. You always offer such helpful advice. I am definitely going to try the egg timer.

    • Happy to hear there’s a early adopter of the egg timer out there! Thanks for letting me know!

  • AZi

    Wow, an excellent article and a really original viewpoint! Everything you say makes sense and you present things in a very convincing way. Thank you.
    Just one little problem: I would have chosen a different woman athlete as an example.

    • Thanks AZi! Who’s your favorite athlete?  I chose Clara Hughes because she’s a cyclist and  speed skating athlete, Canadian like me,  and has won multiple Olympic medals in both!   Since she has retired, she uses her own story on depression to advocate the need to break down barriers and support mental health programs.  She may not be on the list of the sexiest female athletes but that’s another story :) Thanks for commenting.

  • ambitiousfailure

    Hmm im 23, failed too hard and lost alot of money trying to start up something,failed all my professional exams in attempt, lost all confidence and basically been idle for 4 years. doing nothing but sitting at home. i finally felt that its time to start living again, all my attempts at discipline, following a plan didnt work and as a result fall back into the rut and depression. I guess this article did help, im going to try again, to think like an athlete and constantly be active, personally i think its all about progression, when you try to achieve too much and fail, there’s no progression and we lose self esteem in the process, its not just about learning from mistake or being discipline,.. falling again and again can be very damaging. Building the foundation and basics is really important so that we can follow our plans like an athlete. Most people fail to follow a plan is because they do not even have the desire to do so, or lost the will to do so..

    • ambitiousfailure

      Oh forgot to thank you for the article, gonna book mark and remind myself so i dont lose track this time.

    • You know, even athletes with all their discipline can fall into depression.  I’ve chosen Clara Hugues as my model because she is not shy to talk about her brush with depression. Here’s a link:
      I agree with you that building the foundation to self esteem and good health is the most important step to progression. I thank you very much for sharing your story which gives another perspective to what productivity means.  I don’t know if you’ve seen this post on PTB?
      Again, it’s not intended to be therapy – just ideas to think about.  

      • ambitiousfailure

        that article about Clara, is very similar to what i have experienced or is still experiencing, working harder didnt worked, because i had an emotional problem to begin with, i couldnt focus on the business that i was in, i needed a strategy and not sheer hardwork. and then there is this isolation, because i felt that no one understand what i was trying to do or achieve , and i fell again and again. then i lost everything i have put all hopes on, then my relationship/studies with others started to go backwards. and everything seems so dark. its really the hope and dreams that we are chasing turns out blurry in the process because fruit dont get ripe in a day, but worst..  if it turns out to fail, the impact it has on our mental health especially when we invested all our hope in a goal that failed and the thing we have believed for years and gave it all.  the Hope(obsession?) i believed in, the me i thought i was, seems to turn 360 degrees and then somehow a paradigm shift is needed and that is hard. took me 4 years of idle to realise i need to get myself back together again, probably realise it earlier but couldnt get out of it. This time im afraid that itll be the same that ill fail, and fall back into that darkness, but i had to try. 

        Thanks Laure for your site and the article, there are real people having real depression and im sure your links will have an impact for atleast some of them, atleast for me it did, at the right time.

        Gotta push myself like Clara. 

  • I’m not one of those people that schedule my day or week or life even for that matter- I really don’t like that much structure. I think it’s important to be able to depend on yourself to do what needs to be done without having to refer to a diary. I use a system of rewards (now that I think bout it) but in reality I think it’s just about being mature and responsible. there’s a time for everything under the sun :)

    • ambitiousfailure

      Taking responsible is the right word to use.  without it, no diary/plan is gonna help.  

    • Yep! There’s no system that fits all. Time management needs to be highly personalized.  What I was trying to say is what you are pointing out: each of us is different so the key is getting to know ourselves.  And yes, you are so right about rewards!  I’m rewarding myself with a manucure next week! Thanks for bringing up  principle #8!

  • Maybe not unconventional, but for me one other key principles exist: “chat less to colleagues at work”. There is such a temptation to distract (beyond wasting time), so I am trying to control myself to not avoid doing the important stuff.

    • You’re right, there’s a balance to be found between too much control and too much waste, and that’s where discipline becomes an art to master.  I find two very different kinds of people at work: some who always have time to socialize  as if they were always on top of their stuff and on the opposite, some who never have time to talk.  Neither is good.  Informal discussions at work are so important… I wonder where’s the tradeoff.  You give me food for thought Jantje – Thanks!

  • Sophie Lizard

    Nice idea, Laure! I’m still working on separating the big rocks from the little ones…

    • Hey Sophie! Isn’t it a a Sisyphean task?  The litteral translation from French is actually: Sisyphean Rock:) Thanks for dropping by! You rock :)

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  • Lucia

    Hi Laure, I tried your suggestion of working in intervals for a week and as a result, I am more productive. I used to go on working for hours without taking a break but when I did, I procrastinated forever because I dreaded going back. Thanks for the valuable tip!

    • How counter intuitive it is, right?  Studies have showed that working in intervals of 90mn is the best for your creative juices and concentration level but I still stick to the importance of personalizing your system to your needs.  Thanks so much for dropping by Lucia!

  • Claudjian

    How useful to have a specialist who researched and solved the questions and problems we meet all the time! Merci mille fois!

    • More than a specialist, I think I’m passionate about helping people break down whatever is in their way to succeed in their own eyes.  Fear, lack of time, lack of confidence… we’re all in the same boat but some people are able to ask for help in resolving these challenges.  Great to hear from you!

  • This is great! An athlete is such a perfect role model to become productive. They are resilient hard workers and they sure know how to put their time to good use.

    • Thanks Jorge!  What I also like about taking athletes as models is that, well.. they’re humans like us! They have ups, downs, defeats and successes.  Someone like Clara Hughes even had to face depression.  She’s become a spokeswoman on mental illness and has helped others deal with this condition.  Plus time is a great equalizer: we all have the same amount of time in a day! 

  • Great post, I agree with every point. Something that I’ve always used as a way to stay productive is consciously think about the decisions your making. I’ve wrote about this a lot on my blog as well, but before you go and watch that hour of TV – think about what it’ll do for your business, or before you go on facebook, think about the possibility of staying on there for half an hour.


    • Just read your post about avoiding distractions – right on the money!  The topic of personal productivity seems to be infinite because each person has to find his own personal system to avoid wasting time on the small rocks.  Thanks for your insight.

    • And by the way – love your angle on productivity: passive productive! If you’re already thinking of how to lead a full life without feeling overwhelmed at such a young age while combining it with music – you are all set for success. Congrats.

      • I really appreciate that Laure! Some will say that I’m not ‘living life’, by working hard at this age (I still have a social life, don’t get me wrong). But the way I see it, a time spent working hard now will allow me to relax much sooner. I’d rather that than be stuck in a corporate job my whole life.

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