To Be Incredibly Productive, Do One Meaningful Task Each Day

Here’s an obvious statement: Simply being at your desk for eight hours isn’t the same thing as getting work done. But surely there’s some logic to why the 9-to-5 grind is the gold standard, right?

Not really. It turns out that the eight-hour workday is simply a holdover from an 18th century reform aimed at reducing factory workers’ grueling 10-16 hour workdays to something a tad more humane. Once that became the accepted standard (about 100 years after the concept was introduced), we went with it and haven’t changed it since. 

Fast forward to today: Now, we know that the average worker is only productive for just two hours and 53 minutes a day. But really, how much we accomplish isn’t about time at all. Productivity guru Tiago Forte, for one, holds that completing just one meaningful task each day — no matter how small — puts you in the top 10 percent of most productive people. 

It’s time to shake off that outdated idea that burning the midnight oil equals getting things done. But how to accomplish that one piece of work? 

Care about what you’re doing 

As an entrepreneur, this should be a no-brainer. But when it comes to launching a business, it’s helpful to pursue an idea that will energize you, giving you the energy to seize each day and meet each obstacle with enthusiasm. 

The fact is, people who find meaning in their work are better workers. A survey of 2,000 respondents conducted by Harvard Business Review found that employees who find work meaningful experience significantly greater job satisfaction, which is known to correlate with increased productivity. And it turns out, you can put a price on meaning: Based on existing job satisfaction to productivity ratios, HBR estimates that highly meaningful work generates an additional $9,078 per worker, per year. 

It can be easy to get lost in the day-to-day slog of building a startup. But as Smarter Faster Better author Charles Duhigg writes, reminding ourselves how a small action fits into a bigger objective makes it easier to link our small efforts to more meaningful aspirations. 

Use the Pomodoro Technique 

The trusty Pomodoro Technique predates all those gadget-based productivity solutions by a few decades. And guess what? It still works. 

Developed in the late ‘80s by university student Francesco Cirillo, the Pomodoro Technique was the product of Cirillo’s struggle to focus on his assignments. Overwhelmed, he decided to commit to just 10 minutes of focused studying, which he timed using a tomato (pomodoro in Italian) kitchen timer. And with that, the Pomodoro Technique was born. 

The premise is simple: Break your workday into 25-minute periods separated by five minute breaks, with a longer break every four Pomodoros.

This works on two levels: Giving yourself only 25 minutes to get as far into a task as possible makes you less likely to waste time, the way you might if you knew you had all day. Moreover, taking such frequent breaks staves off that burnt-out, drained feeling that comes after an unblinking stretch spent in front of a computer. Feel that way often enough, and will eventually lead to actual, long-term burnout. 

When you’re on, be on. When you’re not, back away from the computer 

Data from the productivity app DeskTime found that, similar to the Pomodoro Technique, the most productive 10 percent of users work for 52 minutes, then take a 17 minute break. But the real takeaway from the research is what they’ve termed the 100% dedication theory, combined with the power of effective breaking. 

The 100% dedication theory is simple: During those 52 minutes of focus, go full out. Give the task you’re working on everything you’ve got, like a sprinter flying down the track in a 100 meter race. Then, when you reach 52 minutes — the finish line of this particular race — it’s time to rest. That doesn’t mean answering emails or some other low-value work task. It means disconnecting completely and giving your mind time to recharge. It just sprinted, remember? 

Too often, it can feel like taking a break is a waste of time. But it’s the opposite. Sitting for eight uninterrupted hours is not only bad for your body, it’s majorly cutting down on your productivity and hurting your attention span. So take a walk, chat with a colleague, get something to eat. When you return, you’ll be sharper and ready to take on another sprint. 

Embrace your prime time

Not everyone is built to spring out of bed at 4:30 a.m., ready to take on the day. Knowing when you work best — your “peak hours” — is one of the most effective ways to supercharge your productivity. I discovered my natural rhythms through lots of trial and error. But learning when I work best and leveraging that time is what has allowed me to grow my business, JotForm, into the company it is today. 

If you don’t know your peak hours, try keeping track of when you start and stop a task, suggests Barbara Green, a Canada-based productivity expert. “If you are able to maintain focus for 60 to 90 minutes, you’ve identified a time of day when you are highly productive,” she explains. Keep it up for a number of days, and look for patterns that emerge. In the same vein, you can also keep track of when you’re most inactive, like when you find yourself scrolling social media instead of working. Apps like RescueTime are great for that — “If people are addicted to social media or email as a way of not focusing, this shows quite vividly,” Green says. 

The term “Work smarter, not harder” was coined in the 1930s, but never has it been more applicable than it is today. With more and more people working from home, now’s the time to embrace a philosophy that focuses on what you’re accomplishing each day, not how much time you spend at your desk. 

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