After reading thousands of articles and dozens of books, I've discovered there are only three real ways to be more productive.
People always equate productivity with working harder. Some of us eventually wise up and think about how we can work smarter. But we almost never think about the third way: how to be more courageous.
Ironically, the path to maximum productivity is organized in the opposite order. Courage is at the top and wisdom is just below it. Labor comes in last.
We all have roughly the same amount of time to work harder, and many of us have access to the same tools to work smarter. What separates the most productive among us from the rest is courage.
Working harder has its limits.
Most people looking to boost their results start by working harder because it's the most visible form of productivity. We assume the solution is to simply put in more hours -- and that’s true, to a point. However, this approach has few key problems.
First, we have only two to four hours of high-level energy per day. Studies that examine the habits of dozens of creatives and entrepreneurs from Darwin to Tchaikovsky reveal that our "peak" energy maxes out at a consistent mark. Those two to four hours a day translate to 10 to 20 hours per week. Beyond that, we cross a threshold. We still have the energy to complete managerial and administrative tasks, but we're incapable of high-level creative work.
Second, pushing through to try to do more actually can make us negatively productive. I fell into that mistake while writing my first book. I took the attitude that I would simply write more every day. But after a certain point (usually two hours of writing for the day), the words I put down weren't only not good, they were actively hurting the overall quality.
Putting in an extra hour was not just an extra hour of work that day. It created another hour of work the next day, when I had to remove all the sections I'd ruined trying to do high-level work in a suboptimal state.
Research from Stanford corroborates my personal experience and research. We pass into negative productivity somewhere between 30 and 60 hours for the week. The magic number for each person depends on genetic makeup and lifestyle factors such as exercise, diet and sleep.
Books and hacks help us work smarter.
Once we top out our hours to work harder, we must learn to work smarter. There are two primary ways to accomplish this.
First, we can learn from others who have come before us. It took a century for people to learn how to market products effectively. Today, though, we can spend a month reading the five most important books in the field and understand 80 percent of what those pioneers gained through 100 years of experience.
Books are just the beginning. Reading gives us explicit knowledge, which can be readily articulated and verbalized. It does not, however, give us tacit knowledge -- basically, everything else that counts.
Here's an example: You can gain explicit knowledge about playing the guitar from musical instruction books. But you’ll never be a “productive” guitar player until you develop tacit knowledge through hands-on practice. The guitarist who combines the two knowledge types will be better than those who only read about playing and those who practice without studying the greats.
Second, we can build a toolbox of productivity hacks, tips and tricks. Approximately 104 percent of everything ever written about productivity falls into this category. Hacks usually require very little time to implement and yield immediate rewards. In short, they're exactly what consumers love to buy.
This isn't to say these tactics aren’t useful -- they are. But if you start from the premise "I want to be more productive and successful," hacks are a relatively small piece of pie. So the question remains: Is the best solution simply to become more efficient at each task?
Management guru Peter Drucker said, “Efficiency is doing the thing right. Effectiveness is doing the right thing.” I know and have studied many people who work hard and work smart but nevertheless seem to accomplish far less than they're capable of doing.
How, then, do we make sure we “do the right thing” before figuring how to do do the thing right?
Courage is the ultimate productivity hack.
As I’ve continued to study successful people and meet individuals I respect and admire, I've learned that courage is undeniably the biggest differentiator.
Most people lack courage because they fail to make the distinction between real and perceived risk. If we perceive a high cost of failure, we say, "It might not work." That scares us, and we hedge. Instead of focusing, we split our attention among different projects, not giving any one the attention it needs to succeed.
There's a well-known evolutionary reason behind this behavior. Picking the wrong project -- the one that might not work -- used to be a devastating proposition. Imagine you're part of a hunter-gatherer tribe and you decide to try a new way of hunting. There's an 80 percent chance your method will make it easier and faster to hunt large animals for the rest of your life. The impact would be huge. But the downside is fatal. If it doesn’t work and you miss the herds that season, you'll starve.
Our ancestors did only what they knew would work, and they survived. People who tried projects that weren’t guaranteed to work, died. That’s no longer our world. If your side hustle doesn’t take off, it’s not fatal (except maybe to your ego).
Many people say they can’t commit to a single project because they have lots of interests or too many ideas. But how does that truly affect our unwillingness to focus? We all like lots of different foods, yet we always manage to pick something on the menu for dinner. The perceived risk of picking the wrong entrée is low, so we make the best decision we can at the time. The most productive people don’t do this only with dinner -- they do it with everything.
By attempting to do too many things at once, we guarantee none will get the time and energy it needs to succeed. We must realize that committing to many things commits us to failure. Our very search for the sure thing actually sabotages our chances.
Our choice is clear: Dedicate our attention to one thing and make success more likely, or commit to many things and make success less likely. If we seek to be more productive, we must accept the proper order in which to organize our resources: courage first, then wisdom and finally labor.
Committing to a single focus and being willing to fail will pay off more than adding another 20 hours to our week or learning another productivity hack.